With the 2020 US election campaign in full swing, in September former Vice President Joe Biden made it clear that he would not conclude a trade agreement with Britain if Prime Minister Boris Johnson were to disregard the Good Friday Agreement, which had brought peace to Ireland and has kept the border open between the independent EU member the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Biden’s threat came as Johnson had tried to blackmail the European Union with his UK Internal Market Bill, which would set post-Brexit trade rules within the United Kingdom — but also in effect undermine the agreement to keep the Irish border open.
Hard-line Brexiteers have always said a trade agreement with the United States would justify their cause. Biden, however, never was a fan of Brexit: “From the US perspective, US interests are diminished with Great Britain not being an integral part of Europe and being able to bring influence,” he said in a speech at Chatham House in October 2018.
Anthony Gardner, an adviser to Biden and the US’s ambassador to the EU from 2014 until Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, told an audience in Berlin in early November that Brexit was the “biggest own-goal” he’d ever seen. As president, he said, Biden would quickly offer a “declaration of support for the European Union, declaration of support for European integration, declaration of support in favor of NATO, the lynchpin of trans-Atlantic alliance.”
Johnson had bet that Trump’s hatred of the European Union would be the basis for a redefined “special relationship” between Britain and the US. The question now is whether Johnson will change his tune and agree to the compromises necessary for a trade agreement with the European Union.
‘The necessary compromises’
In recent weeks, some progress has been made on peripheral issues, according to the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier — whose overall assessment of the situation remains pessimistic. EU diplomats say he does not believe that negotiations are on the right path. After an EU-UK summit in October proved unsuccessful, he said the bloc would “seek the necessary compromises on both sides in order to reach an agreement and we will do so right up until the last day it’s possible to do so.”
The unsolved questions are also unchanged: whether the United Kingdom will engage in fair competition and recognize EU standards for labor, environmental and consumer protections. There is also no agreement on government aid for British companies, which is something that the EU officials would like to restrict to ensure fair competition.
Enforcement of the agreement is a particularly thorny issue. EU officials want to be permitted to react immediately with countermeasures if Britain violates the treaty — such as by imposing new customs duties on goods. EUobserver reported that a diplomat for the bloc said the European Union would seek “a very robust dispute-settlement system.” Officials for the bloc worry that Johnson’s Internal Market Bill is yet another manner in which their British counterparts would try to work around complying with the treaty.
Treading territorial waters
British officials want full control of the waters surrounding the United Kingdom — where fleets from France and other EU countries have long fished. Various proposals are on the table, from zonal assessment of fish stocks to transitional periods for recalculating quotas, but no approach has brought the parties closer to agreement. EU officials have always said fishing will be discussed at the very end because the necessary concessions can only be made at the highest levels.
The European Union’s negotiators have already pulled back on their red lines for many issues. They have also complained about their British counterparts’ lack of willingness to similarly compromise. The UK negotiator David Frost does not tire of saying nothing can restrict Britain’s sovereignty.
Frost is referring to what is at the core of Brexit: the United Kingdom’s complete separation from EU regulation. In the future, UK officials want to distribute government aid to businesses according to the prime minister’s wishes — and without interference. The same applies to fishing in waters claimed by Britain. EU officials, on the other hand, argue that access to the bloc’s markets must be subject to conditions in order to protect the interests of the European Union’s economy. Talks go around in endless circles, largely in vain.
Eyes on Johnson
The trade talks began their latest round in London on Monday. There are only 10 days left to conclude an agreement. The European Union’s unofficial deadline is November 16. After that date, 600 pages of legal text will have to be translated into all EU languages and then be ratified by the European Parliament and member states before the end of 2020. Perhaps some trick could stop the clock for a few days or weeks — but time is running out.
This is the week when the decisions will be made. To reach a trade agreement with complicated details at this point in time, both sides would have to make fundamental concessions, cross their own red lines and show flexibility. It would be slow going because neither the EU nor Britain would throw out all of its principles.
Some observers say Johnson appears to want a no-deal Brexit: an end to the transitional period without an agreement. On November 5, he extended Britain’s pandemic furlough scheme through the end of March. The additional £200 billion (€222 billion/$263 billion) in subsidized wages would cover up the immediate economic consequences of Brexit on January 1, observers say.
The ball is in Johnson’s court: He must decide whether he wants to remain a partner to the European Union or whether pursue his vision of a “global Great Britain” — alone and without Donald Trump in the White House.
This article was adapted from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.