The bell has rung for the end of round seven of the post-Brexit trade talks heavyweight contest and nobody has yet landed a punch. More than four years after the EU referendum, we are still at the stage we might have expected to pass around autumn of 2016. These are not normal negotiations; indeed, it is questionable whether they can legitimately be termed negotiations at all. David Frost, the chief UK negotiator, said: “We have had useful discussions this week but there has been little progress.”
Michel Barnier, his opposite number, expressed himself as “disappointed, concerned, and surprised as the British prime minister told us in June that he wanted to speed up the process during the summer”. He concluded with the ritual EU mantra: “The clock is ticking.” Coming from the biggest procrastinator in Europe since the Roman general Fabius, that reeks of hypocrisy. This week, Britain tabled a draft free trade agreement in an effort to push things forward, but Brussels refuses to broaden the negotiations or address legal texts until Britain agrees to accept continuity with EU state aid and fisheries policies.
This has been Brussels’ longstanding strategy: to refuse broad-front negotiations and impose a tunnel approach whereby it refuses to discuss wider issues until its priorities have been conceded – as it did in the original Brexit talks by postponing all trade deliberations until the political questions were resolved. Its tactic is to salami slice issues, one by one, to get its way, in the hope the other party will make concessions simply to access discussion of the broader questions.
Seasoned observers will claim that teams of sherpas on both sides will have prepared detailed proposals that could quickly be brought into play if a procedural compromise is reached. It may be that the EU intends to resort to its well-worn essay-crisis tactic of frantically cobbling together an agreement in the final 72 hours, with panda-eyed negotiators emerging to flourish a document. That may be possible in the context of political treaties, but trade deals are too complex for such expedients. The prospects do not look promising.
From the outset, Brussels’ attitude towards Brexit Britain has resembled that of George III towards the rebel American colonists. Britain, under the management of Theresa May and Olly Robbins, was complicit in fuelling EU delusions by behaving in a hangdog manner – traceable to the elites’ embarrassment over Brexit – like a delinquent petitioning for parole. Britain has since progressed to Boris Johnson and David Frost; but Ursula von der Leyen is as doctrinaire an integrationist as Jean Claude Juncker, and Michel Barnier remains the barrier to any breakthrough agreement.
David Frost is key to the situation. He was by instinct a European reformer rather than a Brexiteer and he has insider familiarity with Brussels’ workings. His rise was unexpected, but his CV justifies it. Detractors have tried to represent his time as CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, an industry generating more than £5bn a year, as a career downturn, as though he had been running an illicit still out of a bothy in Auchenshuggle; the reality is of a widely experienced diplomat easily the match of Michel Barnier. Yet that has ominous implications: if Frost cannot break the logjam, it can only be because Brussels is resolved to perpetuate it.
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The elephant in the negotiating room is Britain’s net £72bn trading deficit with the EU, whose member states have much more to lose. The only sensible course is to factor WTO trading into our post-Covid recovery blueprint and prepare for a long march. At least it will have a realistic destination, unlike the intransigent EU, sinking further into internal dissension and incoherence.