The truth behind the false idea that the Brexit talks have dragged on and on

Europe Letter: Boredom with the talks and indifference to the outcome benefits Britain

It's not true that the trade talks between Britain and the European Union have dragged on interminably. This is a false idea that has widely taken hold in public discourse, informing attitudes and media coverage. It's not a politically innocent notion.

The truth is that the talks have been conducted at unprecedented speed on a hugely compressed timetable. Trade deals often take the guts of a decade to work out. In this case, the first negotiating round in the trade talks was only held in March.

Where has this false idea of interminable talks come from?

Firstly, it’s due to confusion between the deal that was reached in October last year and what negotiators are trying to agree now.


Last year, the talks were focused on only the “terms of the divorce”, under which Britain would exit the EU. There were three major issues: the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and visa versa, what Britain owed the EU in outstanding budget contributions, and the infamous Irish border question.

These were settled in the withdrawal agreement, allowing Britain to leave the EU in January this year. Since then, it has been in a transition period, during which the previous trade and legal arrangements between the countries have been temporarily extended while the new future relationship is worked out.

This future relationship is what has been under discussion since March, and it’s a far more complex and wide-ranging subject than the relatively simple matter of the divorce. It covers every aspect of the economy, from chemicals to insurance, and every kind of interaction and co-operation.

How can cross-border flows of electricity be managed? On what basis can police co-operate in investigations? What will EU aircraft security certificates be replaced with? The topics are vast and technical, and much more diverse than the small fraction that we hear most about, the contentious areas of governance, level playing field and fish.

The confusion between the two agreements has been deliberately cultivated by prime minister Boris Johnson for narrow political reasons. Johnson won his election campaign on a promise to "get Brexit done", capitalising on the weariness that had already set in over the issue and a widespread desire for conclusion.

His government has deliberately cultivated an idea that the divorce agreement was the definitive deal, and celebrated the UK’s exit from the EU in January as the fulfilment of the election pledge.

Glossed over

The existence of a transition period was glossed over. It’s understandable that this has led to confusion about why talks are still continuing, as well as a deflated sense of urgency among businesses about the need to prepare, since Brexit seemed to have “happened” already without apparent change.

With talks now running up hard against Christmas, boredom with the talks, distraction, impatience for a conclusion, indifference to the outcome, also suit Johnson politically.

The Brexit referendum was narrowly won. And whatever deal may emerge will reflect an extreme interpretation of Brexit that was a fringe position even among the Eurosceptic camp, which once insisted Britain would not leave the single market or customs union. It took hold as an idea of the “only true” Brexit only over the course of negotiations, at some economic cost and at the price of barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland.

It suits the British government that any such deal is rushed through without too much opportunity for anybody to get upset or think again, counting on a disengaged public and an opposition that doesn’t think arguing about it is a vote-winner.

Both the perception of lengthy talks and the reality of the curtailed timetable were created by London. The British government declined its last chance to extend in July, citing reasons of sovereignty. For the past seven weeks, negotiators have worked through every weekend, trying to get the hundreds of pages thrashed out.

The EU preferred a much more lengthy process, and openly hoped that Britain would agree to allow more time for the talks particularly after Covid-19 broke out. Infections have twice forced planned talks to be rearranged over video conference.

Businesses need a sudden jolt to their practices this January in the middle of a pandemic like a hole in the head. The UK civil service needs more time to adjust. Border infrastructure in Northern Ireland and a truck park where lorries will await checks in Dover are not yet fully built, and there are serious questions about the readiness of customs IT systems too.

If you find yourself thinking “I’m bored of this, can’t they just decide one way or another? I don’t care anymore” – ask yourself in whose benefit is it that you have that idea.