Post-Brexit talks may derail over Johnson’s stance
Level playing field and NI protocol bones of contention but UK and EU have wriggle room
UK prime minister Boris Johnson: EU suspects he is entering negotiations in bad faith. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty
Downing Street’s sharp response to the European Union’s negotiating mandate has fuelled speculation at Westminster that the talks on a future partnership starting in Brussels next Monday are headed for an early bust-up.
Britain will not publish its own negotiating mandate until Thursday but it has already rejected the EU’s demand for level playing field commitments to avoid unfair competition and ruled out guaranteeing EU fishermen access to British waters.
Reports that prime minister Boris Johnson is looking for ways to escape from his commitment to checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have added to EU suspicions that he is entering the negotiations in bad faith.
Both sides have given themselves some wriggle room on the level playing field and the Northern Ireland protocol, however, and neither has yet adopted public positions that create insuperable obstacles to a deal.
Downing Street rejects the term “level playing field” as an EU neologism that does not appear in trade agreements with other countries. But Britain is willing to discuss measures to ensure “fair and open” competition, a phrase Michel Barnier used in his press conference in Brussels on Tuesday.
Johnson has signalled he is willing to play fast and loose with the non-binding political declaration agreed alongside the withdrawal agreement. But he has stated repeatedly that he will abide by his obligations under the agreement itself, which is an international treaty enshrined in British law.
Whitehall sources insist the prime minister is not seeking to use the Northern Ireland protocol as a bargaining chip in the negotiations about the future partnership. And they acknowledge that, although Johnson has claimed there will be no “checks” on goods crossing the Irish Sea, there could be “procedures” or “processes”.
Downing Street repeated on Tuesday that ports have not been asked to plan for new infrastructure in connection with the Northern Ireland protocol. But sources point out there is already some port infrastructure to conduct animal health checks, suggesting it could be expanded if necessary.
If the talks are not necessarily doomed, there is no guarantee of success either and the two sides are setting out from very different starting points. Johnson’s allies believe his political strength at Westminster reinforces his hand in the negotiations with Brussels but the Brexit experience so far suggests that the brute facts of economics and power count for more than any parliamentary majority.