What does Boris Johnson’s trip to Brussels mean for the Brexit negotiations?
PM takes matters into his own hands after Michel Barnier sets Wednesday deadline for deal
Boris Johnson is in Brussels today to meet EU leaders in a last-ditch attempt to hammer out the details of a post-Brexit trade agreement.
Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a joint statement on Monday that “remaining differences on critical issues” still stood in the way of agreeing a deal, despite lengthy phone negotiations between the two stretching late into the evening.
A time and date for an in-person meeting between Johnson and his EU counterparts has yet to be confirmed, but with European leaders gathering for a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has reportedly told MEPs that the deadline for finalising a deal is Wednesday.
What is the state of play?
The ongoing stalement between the two sides after months of negotations is causing frustration and despair among politicians desperate to prevent the UK crashing out of the bloc without a trade treaty in place.
Johnson and von der Leyen said yesterday that “the conditions for finalising an agreement are not there due to the remaining significant differences on three critical issues”: the “level playing field”, governance and fisheries.
The warning came even though the UK government had just “offered an olive branch in the form of a route to removing controversial clauses from domestic legislation, including its draft Internal Market Bill”, according to Politico.
These clauses would “give the UK power to unilaterally override the divorce deal struck with Brussels last year”, says the news site, but would be “unnecessary if the two sides could implement a solution to concerns the British had about how Brexit would be implemented in Northern Ireland”.
Paving the way to a deal?
The face-to-face meeting between Johnson and von der Leyen is a “sign that eight months of technical negotiations have gone as far they can” and that if there is to be a deal, “political leaders will now need to step in and broker a compromise”, says Bloomberg.
“Equally, it suggests both sides still think they have time before the ultimate deadline at the end of the year and aim to use it to extract last-minute concessions,” the site adds.
But the final outcome may not hinge entirely on Johnson’s trip to the Belgian capital.
“Whatever happens, some in the EU insist they will keep negotiating, even if a deal isn’t struck this week,” Politico reports. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok has hinted that negotiations could drag into Christmas, with the EU “even willing to continue negotiating after the end of the transition period”, says the site.
Nervous Tory backbenchers
The Independent’s political editor Andrew Grice predicts that around 25 hardcore Eurosceptics in the Tory party “might condemn” any concessions made by Johnson as “BRINO”, meaning Brexit in name only.
The prime minister has attempted to assuage these fears, telling reporters today that he is near the “limits” on Brexit and could “draw stumps”.
“Our friends have just got to understand the UK has left the EU in order to be able to exercise democratic control over the way we do things,” Johnson said. “There is also the issue of fisheries where we are a long way apart still.
“But hope springs eternal, I will do my best to sort it out if we can.”
Market analysts have suggested that no agreement would be “preferable for Johnson as that would leave all the economic damage blamed on the EU with Brexiteers on his side”, reports Business Insider.
Barnier reportedly told MEPs in a closed meeting on Monday morning that talks were now in their “endgame” and would need to be wrapped up within days.
Any deal must be unanimously backed by the EU27, approved by various European parliaments and then pushed through the UK parliament before the transition period expires on 31 December.
Indeed, “even if a deal is reached”, the chances of formally completing the process before the end of the year “already seem slim”, says Deutsche Welle.
But Johnson is refusing to admit defeat, with a spokesperson for the PM insisting that the UK is prepared to continue for “as long as we have time available”.