Brexit trade deal still possible but time is running out quickly

September 16, 2020

There are barely a hundred days left before the end of the year, when the UK will end its transition period and cut all ties with the European Union - still enough time to agree a trade deal, but it is getting tight.

Talks have been going on for months and months, and for much of that time they have meandered. If we have learnt one thing, it is that trade negotiations are best done in person, rather than by COVID-enforced Zoom calls.

But there has also been intransigence on both sides. Neither Lord Frost, for the UK, nor Michel Barnier, for the European Union, have been quick to give concessions. That may well be the mark of tough negotiators, but, at some point, both are going to have to blink. Perhaps we're getting to that point.

When the two men sit down in Brussels, they may end up having two distinct conversations. One will be about the familiar stumbling blocks of these talks - fishing, state aid, dispute resolution - and the other will be about British domestic politics, and the sanctity of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The idea that Britain would pass a law allowing it to renege on that agreement has astonished many politicians and diplomats around Europe. They spent years negotiating it and expected it to be enacted diligently. The idea that it could be thrown away is seen, by some here, as a sign of enormous bad faith.

Some, but not all. Others have shrugged it off as a negotiating tactic, albeit one that they tend to think was misjudged and overly provocative.

Universal among the diplomats I have spoken to is a sense that the UK has turned from a bulldog into an angry Rottweiler, but I suspect they also underestimate the amount of support, and political capital, that there is in the UK for a no-deal Brexit.

Throughout my time in Brussels, I've kept in contact with diplomats from across the European Union, gauging their thoughts on Brexit talks. Many now profess a sort of bemusement; most say that a Brexit deal has fallen down their list of priorities.

But now, for the first time, a diplomat from a major European country has told me that he expects talks to fail, for there not to be a deal. Indeed, his prediction is that a Brexit trade deal might not be signed for years.

That is only one voice, and perhaps he is wrong. The majority still believe that, as so often before, things will happen when the time pressure ratchets up, that some kind of basic deal will come along. But the spectre of no-deal now seems more tangible. It is no longer a taboo "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it" subject. Money is being spent on preparations.

Which all means that the stakes are growing ever higher as the time for negotiating runs out. Messrs Frost and Barnier both speak of their desire for a deal, and both know they are affected by the political actions of others.

The Internal Markets Bill, and the future of the Withdrawal Agreement, are politically explosive. But that bill, whether born out of prudent planning or deliberate provocation, will be forgotten in Brussels if a trade deal can be done before the end of the year.

The question is whether, away from the noise of politics and posturing, Frost and Barnier, two men with no obvious emotional connection, can come up with a pragmatic deal that will be acceptable to parliaments across Europe, as well as the House of Commons and the European Parliament, while giving a range of leaders the chance to claim success. It won't be easy. But, for the moment, it is, surely, still possible.

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