In Brexit negotiations, no deadline is final. Reliably, it is the UK that needs an extension. Just as consistently, the reason is failure to understand the implications of something that had been agreed before the last deadline.
In accordance with that pattern, the government this week once again extended “grace periods” waiving checks for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. An early March deadline had been unilaterally abandoned by the UK; a second date of October was agreed with the European Commission. Now, David Frost, Brexit minister, says the waiver is to be indefinite “to provide space for potential further discussions” on changes to the Northern Ireland protocol.
That conversation has made little progress because, as ever in Brexit talks, the two sides have incompatible ideas about what it is they are discussing. The EU identifies the task in hand as finding ways to address UK concerns within the terms of the existing agreement. Lord Frost says the protocol needs total renegotiation. There is no appetite for that in European capitals. The message to London is that a treaty was signed; a deal is a deal. Technical solutions to Boris Johnson’s problems must be found within the text.
But the problem is not just technical. It is also theological. For example, the simplest solution in one of the most awkward areas – veterinary checks on agricultural produce – involves alignment of UK and Brussels standards. But that would be a dilution of regulatory sovereignty, so unacceptable to the high priests of Brexit.
Lord Frost has not given up on looser models of mutual recognition and open borders that have already been rejected. The UK counter-claims that the Commission is theologically rigid, obsessed with non-compliant goods penetrating the single market via Northern Ireland, when the threat is hypothetical. But the real obstacle is trust. Mr Johnson’s every move in the Brexit process has advertised his unreliability as a partner. Threats to renege on the existing deal are not a good prelude when demanding a better one.
This is part of the wider crisis in British diplomacy, expressing a basic error in the theory of Brexit. The UK, unleashed from Brussels, was meant to be so mighty with restored sovereignty that it could call the shots in international negotiations.
Things haven’t worked out that way. US president Joe Biden is in no hurry to do the trade deal that was heralded by Eurosceptics as a lucrative alternative to the single market. (The economics of that swap never added up and, with Donald Trump gone from the White House, the political calculus has unravelled too.)
It was reportedon Wednesday that, in order to secure a trade deal with Australia, Britain agreed to drop commitments to the Paris climate agreement – capitulation in an area where Mr Johnson will pretend to claim global leadership at the Cop26 summit later this year.
A picture is emerging of Britain as a lonely country, desperate for Brexit validation from non-European countries and unwilling to accept that repairing relations with Europe is the urgent priority. It might take a few more postponed deadlines before that reality is brought home. Mr Johnson may wish to pause his treaty obligations indefinitely, but the wider problems with Brexit come down to facts of geography and economics, which cannot be unilaterally suspended.