Vulcan Insight

Brexit negotiations re-start after week of political theatre

23 October 2020

“I have concluded that we should get ready for January 1 with arrangements that are like Australia’s based on simple principles of global free trade” – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement following last week’s European Council summit kicked off what can only be described as a week of very public back and forth posturing leaving us wondering whether the post-Brexit trade talks had in fact, failed.

The walkout came late on Friday afternoon, after the UK Government took issue with EU Heads of State and Government’s conclusions on Brexit which omitted specific wording on “intensifying talks” and suggested that the UK would have to make necessary compromises. This is despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier repeatedly acknowledging the need to further intensify talks and the EU to compromise on issues of importance for the UK.

Since then, a cross-channel political theatre of public statements, behind-the-scenes phone calls and twitter updates has taken place with each party reassuring the other that their doors remained “open” (as per Michel Barnier) or “ajar” (as per Michael Gove) for negotiations. Yet, the door just never seemed to be open far enough for the UK Government to re-engage in the talks, despite Mr. Barnier earlier in the week offering talks to progress discussions based on legal texts in all areas – something he previously refused to do – and what Boris Johnson’s Government had publicly been calling for. In a sign of the times, the UK Government considered the EU’s concession as too little of a signal to re-start formal talks.

As has been the case so often in the Brexit theatre, the stalemate was eventually broken after Mr Barnier told the European Parliament on Wednesday that “an agreement is in reach if both sides are willing to work constructively” and that “we will seek the necessary compromises on both sides in order to reach an agreement and we will do so right up until the last day until it’s possible to do so.”

While, on substance, Mr Barnier did not offer any new compromises or, in fact, say anything he hadn’t in the days and weeks prior, his words to MEPs were somehow seen as enough of a “changed attitude” for his UK counterparts to agree to come back to the table.

Overall, Mr Barnier only made public compromises on procedural matters. On matters of substance such as governance, the level playing field or fisheries he has not indicated any public compromises. In fact, EU Affairs Ministers, some EU Heads of State and, this week, MEPs, urged the EU’s negotiators to find a deal, if possible, but not by any price that could “compromise on EU values” or “sell out EU fishermen.”

Post-Brexit trade talks re-started in London on Thursday afternoon, with negotiations taking place daily, across all negotiating topics in parallel, and based on each other’s proposed draft legal texts with the aim of reaching an agreement on a common text as soon as possible.

In essence, after a week of cross-channel political theatre, which cost them valuable time at a critical stage, negotiators stand exactly where they left off at the end of the ninth formal round, exactly three weeks ago.