Boris Johnson’s Brexit talks optimism hard to square with reality

Talks likely to go well beyond summer, with stakes rising for British business

Boris Johnson, David Frost and Michael Gove take part in a videoconference call with the three EU presidents. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing street

Boris Johnson, David Frost and Michael Gove take part in a videoconference call with the three EU presidents. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing street

 

Urging the European Union to put a tiger in the tank of Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson said after Monday’s video conference with the three EU presidents that he saw no reason why the talks could not be completed by the end of July.

But after silently abandoning his threat to walk away from the talks by the end of June, he was not issuing a new deadline – and the six planned negotiating rounds are scheduled to continue into August.

“What we already said today is the faster we can do this, the better. We see no reason why you shouldn’t get that done in July,” Johnson said. 

“I certainly don’t want to see it going on until the autumn-winter, as I think perhaps in Brussels they would like. I don’t see any point in that, so let’s get it done.”

Despite the upbeat tone in London and Brussels on Monday, with Johnson asserting that the two sides were not “that far apart”, finding agreement during the summer will be difficult.

The main areas of disagreement have been clearly identified, including the level playing field guaranteeing fair competition; fisheries; and the governance of any future agreement.

But the deadlock reflects an essential difference in approach between the two sides, with the EU insisting that the framework for a deal was agreed in the political declaration negotiated alongside the withdrawal agreement last year.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who has tested positive the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. File photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA

That declaration forms the basis of the mandate the EU leaders have given to their chief negotiator Michel Barnier and it calls for “robust commitments to ensure a level playing field” upholding “common high standards” in areas including state aid, competition, social and employment standards and the environment.

Mere sketch

Britain views the political declaration as a non-binding document that sketches the parameters of a future relationship but is not prescriptive. For Johnson, the promises he made to pro-Brexit voters ahead of last December’s general election have more authority than the declaration he agreed with EU leaders.

“We can’t have the involvement of the European Court of Justice in this country; we can’t have a system whereby we continue to have to obey EU law even when we’re out of the EU, and we’ve got to get a great deal for our fish,” he said after Monday’s video conference.

Johnson’s problem is that, contrary to his government’s spin earlier this year that Britain was relaxed about exiting the post-Brexit transition without an agreement, his negotiators are seeking a very close economic relationship with the EU including privileged access to the European market for British goods and services.

Johnson may not want the negotiations to stretch into autumn, but when they do, the stakes for British business will be higher and he will be in an even weaker position to walk away than he is now.

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