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Brexit: EU leaders close ranks as no-deal talk mounts

Katya Adler
Europe editor
@BBCkatyaadleron Twitter

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media captionEC President Ursula von der Leyen says Brexit will be "new beginnings for old friends"

Boris Johnson's declaration that he would go to Paris, travel to Berlin, "do whatever it takes to reach a deal" was quietly rebuffed again by the EU on Friday.

Normally after big summits like the one we've just had in Brussels, leaders make media statements about their most pressing discussions.

Climate change, Covid, relations with Turkey... they all featured prominently at the summit. Brexit was hardly mentioned.

There's no denying that the prospect of the pain of no deal at all with the UK certainly weighs on EU minds.

A German think tank has estimated that up to 700,000 European jobs could be at risk.

But Europe's leaders are keen to clarify they won't personally intervene in the current impasse in trade talks. There'll be no last-minute handshake or "a-ha" moment in Paris, Warsaw or Berlin.

image copyrightReuters
image captionGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel (r) says a Brexit deal is still possible but insists that the integrity of the EU single market must be respected

Behind the scenes, of course, leaders are involved in discussions with their negotiators, but they don't want to be face-to-face, or ear-to-ear, with Boris Johnson in public.

EU countries are joined together in their single market.

So, no individual EU leader - not even the most powerful ones, in France and Germany - can be perceived to be making the political compromises that could clinch the UK deal. Concessions will impact the whole single market - and therefore all member states, as a collective.

Just this week, an Élysée Palace spokesman described as "not desirable" the idea of a visit or bilateral call between the prime minister and Emmanuel Macron in these last negotiating days. And the French president underlined again on Friday that EU countries were united behind the European Commission negotiating with the UK on their behalf.

Something Downing Street then said it accepted.

So can a deal be reached between the EU and UK by Sunday, despite the pervading mood of gloom plus a sense - in public, at least - that both sides are digging in their heels?

It's difficult but possible.

  • PM and EU say trade deal unlikely by Sunday
  • What happens if there's no trade deal?
  • What are the sticking points in Brexit trade talks?

One of the main obstacles to a deal, according to the UK government, is that the EU refuses to accept the UK's post-Brexit national sovereignty.

"How can the EU demand that we tie ourselves to a new rule book to get good access to the single market?" ministers ask. After all, wasn't Brexit all about breaking free from Brussels' regulations?

But on Friday the European Commission president - who had a working dinner with the prime minister just this week - hit back at the EU-is-in-denial-about-UK-sovereignty claim.

Yes, said Ursula von der Leyen, the EU was insisting on what it views as rules on "fair competition" in exchange for agreeing the UK could have preferential access to the single market - i.e. tariff and quota-free. But she pointedly added that the UK would remain free - "sovereign, if you wish" were the words she used - to decide what it wanted to do.

"We [the EU] would simply adapt the conditions for access to our market accordingly. It would be the decision of the UK and this would apply vice versa."

This refers to something often discussed in my blog over the past weeks.

We know, oh so well by now, the three main sticking points still in talks: EU fishing rights in UK waters; competition regulations for the UK to have that good access to the single market; and the governance of the deal - how to ensure both sides keep to the agreement or face punitive measures.

The basics

  • Brexit happened but rules didn't change at once: The UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020, but leaders needed time to negotiate a deal for life afterwards - they got 11 months.
  • Talks are continuing: The UK and the EU have until 31 December 2020 to agree a trade deal as well as other things, such as fishing rights.
  • If there is no deal: Border checks and taxes will be introduced for goods travelling between the UK and the EU. But deal or no deal, we will still see changes.

The EU has gradually shifted its focus as it has become more and more aware that a post-Brexit UK will, almost inevitably, want to make up its own rules and regulations for business: deciding for itself which industries it wants to invest in and promote.

Despite this, the EU still would rather have a trade and security deal with the UK than not.

Because, in theory, it would be economically beneficial for both sides and because the deal contains other important aspects of the relationship, such as social security and police and judicial co-operation, how the EU and UK deal with nuclear waste, and more.

So Brussels has been pondering how it can live with the UK's sovereign right to diverge and yet still have an overall deal.

Their answer: focus more on governance.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionTrade between the UK and the EU would be disrupted by a no-deal Brexit

This is what Mrs von der Leyen was referring to. A proposal that if the UK changes its environmental or labour standards, for example, the EU could then take immediate action to protect its businesses. And the UK would be able to take measures against the EU if the situation were reversed.

So far, so sensible, you might think.

But surprise, surprise, it's far from being that straightforward.

The EU doesn't want to have to wait for some independent body/arbitration panel to judge whether it has the right to retaliate if it believes there is "unfair competition" afoot.

Brussels worries a legal process like that could take too long. In the meantime, EU businesses could flounder or go under completely. EU leaders worry how they could justify that to their voters.

The words "level playing field" or "competition regulations" may sound bewilderingly abstract but the Danish prime minister pointed out on Thursday that each EU leader was thinking about protecting jobs and businesses in their country - be it Denmark, Germany, France or the Netherlands, when it came to this deal with the UK.

So, the EU is pushing to be able to retaliate even before a judgement on unfair competition has been reached. Something the UK clearly says it cannot accept.

Can this key disagreement be resolved? Maybe.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, is described by his team as being in a "determined, positive mood". The UK says it's willing to go the extra mile.

media captionJohnson: No-deal Brexit now "very, very likely"

You can dismiss all this as a PR exercise for public consumption, but the fact that negotiations will continue over the weekend means neither side has stopped trying.

The problem facing all of us outside the negotiating room, is that there are leaks and assertions aplenty being made on both sides, but in the absence of the publication of texts, the only ones who know for sure what's going on, are the men and women currently sitting opposite each other in closed rooms in Brussels.

Sunday will be here before we know it.

Boris Johnson and the European Commission president say that's when "a decision will be made".

But based on all the other false dawns in these talks, be warned: Sunday's decision could be "deal", "no deal" or "let's keep talking, a little while longer".

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