British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks out of 10 Downing Street, London, September 8, 2020. 
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks out of 10 Downing Street, London, September 8, 2020 (NIKLAS HALLE’N / AFP)

Negotiations resumed on Tuesday amid a tense climate between the UK and the EU to define their post-Brexit relationship, with London threatening to slam the door if progress is not made this week.

If the subject has been somewhat obscured by the Covid-19 crisis, Brexit is back on the front of the stage . A new negotiating session between the European Union and the United Kingdom opened on Tuesday, September 8. The tone has risen between the two parties and the same eternal question arises. Will they find an agreement or are we heading towards a “no deal”?

1.Why are we talking about Brexit again?

If the subject is back in the news this week, it is because an  eighth session of talks  opened on Tuesday. Because if we thought we could end quickly after the referendum of June 23, 2016 and the victory of the « Leave » (« to ») ,  four years later, the discussions are still skating.

The UK’s exit date from the European Union, initially set for March 29, 2019, has been postponed several times before  finally taking place on January 31, 2020 . On this date, a  transition period  began. It should end (normally) on December 31st. This time frame is dedicated to the negotiations which will determine the future relationship between Brussels and London. Because for the moment, the United Kingdom remains governed by European regulations. 

The first « round » of negotiations began on March 2, 2020 and ended in failure, the two parties failing to agree on many points. The Covid-19 crisis disrupted other negotiating sessions, which resumed by videoconference. On May 15, the chief negotiator of the European Commission, Michel Barnier, stormed,  during a press conference , that apart from  « some modest overtures, no progress [had]  been possible on the other subjects , the most difficult ”. A sentiment shared by his British counterpart, David Frost, who called for  « a change in approach to the EU ». July 23, same observation at the end of a  new negotiating session : still not agree and still as  « little progress » , according to Michel Barnier.  

2.What are the challenges of these new negotiations?

Monday September 7, the tone rose between the EU and the United Kingdom. Because this week is  « the final phase of our negotiations with the EU, »  said Boris Johnson. “The EU has been very clear about the timing. Me too. There must be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council, on October 15, so that it enters into force by the end of the year ”,  announced the British Prime Minister. He added that, in the absence of an agreement at the end of this new session, there would be  « no free trade agreement »  between London and Brussels. 

For his part, Michel Barnier  assured Monday on France Inter  that « there will be no compromise, no agreement with the United Kingdom to the detriment of the European Union and to the detriment of the single market ». He felt that  « the British would like the best of both worlds, exporting their products to the European market somewhat on their terms, and we want those terms to be fair ».

3.What are the points of friction between the European Union and the United Kingdom?

Two sticking points remain. The first is fishing. The Europeans want to have unchanged access to British waters. The United Kingdom wants to see its fishing rights doubled in its territorial waters and calls for the annual negotiation of quotas. Without an agreement, European fishermen would find themselves deprived of access to British fishing waters from January 1, 2021 . « We will not accept that the work and the means of subsistence of these men and these women serve as bargaining chip in these negotiations » , declared Michel Barnier on September 2, during a videoconference in front of the Irish think tank  Institute of International and European Affairs .

The other point of contention concerns the conditions of fair competition. The EU wants to give the British privileged access to the internal market, without quotas or customs duties, in exchange for the certainty that London remains aligned with community standards, particularly in terms of state aid, explains  Le Monde  ( subscribers article). The Twenty-Seven fear in particular that the  “autonomy”  of the British  “will turn into social and environmental dumping”  and will  “destroy companies on the European side at the same time,”  Michel Barnier explained on France Inter on Monday  .  

Tensions are all the more exacerbated as the British government announced on Monday its desire to reverse certain parts of  the agreement framing the exit from the EU on January 31 . He intends to present a bill on Wednesday aimed at ensuring the absence of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, and to avoid the resurgence of tensions in this region. London then specified that it wanted to modify the protocol in a  “limited”  way to  “clarify” it, in  order to  “remove any ambiguity”  and avoid  “unforeseen consequences”  of the text for the peace process or the British internal market. 

But the Europeans reacted strongly:  « Everything that has been signed in the past must be respected » , insisted Michel Barnier. The spokeswoman for French diplomacy, Agnès von der Mühll, for her part warned that if  « trust »  was broken,  « negotiations on the future relationship will be affected ». Especially since the agreement on the Irish border was  signed in pain  by the EU and the United Kingdom. On Tuesday, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis admitted to Parliament that  « yes,  [such a review]  violates international law in a very specific and limited way .  « 

4.What now?

If no agreement is reached before October 15, the British and Europeans will leave each other by applying the rules of the World Trade Organization in their trade: high customs duties will apply from January 1. 

Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the British government would be content to leave the European bloc without a deal if the EU did not show flexibility in order to conclude a treaty and avoid a brutal rupture between the two partners. However,  the economies of both parties , already affected by the Covid-19 crisis, risk suffering from a « no deal »: their trade represents nearly $ 1,000 billion, and the UK’s GDP has lost. 20% in the second quarter, the worst recession in all of Europe (France is -13.8%,  according to OECD figures ).

With AFP