Boris Johnson told the European Union in June it needed to strike a trade deal before the end of the summer. Five months later, they are still talking.
That was just one of many deadlines that have come and gone as the U.K. and EU struggle to reach an agreement over their post-Brexit relationship. Even now, with just six weeks remaining before Britain leaves the bloc’s single market, negotiators are still trying to work out when they will genuinely be out of time.
Each side has blamed the other for running down the clock on purpose. U.K. government officials frequently refer to what they see as the EU’s well-worn tactic in trade negotiations of taking talks as close to the wire as possible so that, scared of failure, the other side is panicked into making last-minute concessions.
But people close to the discussions say it’s a ploy that both camps are guilty of using. As one EU official put it, they are involved in a game of chicken in front of an oncoming train — but without any common understanding of how long they have before they get hit.
With neither side willing to make concessions until the last possible moment, the negotiations have become about trying to work out when the other side thinks that consequences will start to hit. That’s why so many months have gone by without any real progress on the most contentious topics.
Despite the public deadlines Johnson has set — he threatened to walk away on Oct. 15 if a deal wasn’t in sight by then — U.K. officials repeatedly insist that the EU is under greater time pressure because its process for ratifying any agreement is more complicated.
For a while, EU officials tended to agree. They claimed that a deal had to be struck by mid to late October to allow the treaty to be translated into all the bloc’s official languages and scrutinized by the European Parliament.
But as that deadline came and went, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, let it be known privately that he was relaxed about letting the negotiations drag into December.
Was this a tactic too, British officials wondered, or can the EU really let the deliberations run that late?
Listen to the competing voices within the EU, and the answer is unclear. Members of the European Parliament aren’t involved in the negotiations, but have the power to veto a deal. They will want time to scrutinize any agreement and, if marginalized, could protest. They are scheduled to vote on an accord on Dec. 16 — a date that could slip to after Christmas.
On Wednesday, one senior EU official put the deadline to reach an agreement and then translate it as Nov. 23 — before adding that perhaps it wouldn’t have to be translated after all. That was before face-to-face negotiations between the two sides’ chief negotiators were suspended on Thursday after an EU aide tested positive for coronavirus, something that could delay the whole process.
For their part, EU figures question whether the U.K. is comfortable giving its parliament only a few days to approve any treaty when businesses are crying out for certainty. But Johnson has a large majority committed to delivering Brexit as well as control of the parliamentary timetable.
Even if the deadlines are still murky, what is clear is that a deal is now coming into sight, and officials on both sides — very cautiously — believe a breakthrough could come next week. Equally, it could become another date that comes and goes, a U.K. official said.
“We are now indeed in a final push,” European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. But he cautioned against putting a date on when a deal could emerge.
“We have actually seen many deadlines come and go,” he said. “But there is one deadline which we will not be able to move which is Jan. 1 next year, when the transition period ends.”
With that final, immutable deadline looming, negotiators are getting closer to fulfilling the prediction that one senior EU official made in June — that they’ll be remain at the table until five minutes to midnight on Dec. 31.
— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras, and Alexander Weber