LONDON — Boris Johnsons latest Brexit gambit has seriously upset a whole lot of people — but not enough to blow up the trade talks (yet).
The EU on Thursday issued a furious and firm condemnation of the U.K.s decision to give itself powers — via domestic legislation — to unpick key elements of the Brexit deal struck between London and Brussels less than a year ago.
After meeting Johnsons Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove to express the EUs “serious concerns” about the plan — which would see the U.K. override sensitive parts of the agreement governing trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. — European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said if the U.K. followed through it would amount to an “extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law.”
He gave London an end-of-September deadline to change course or else risk legal action, but Gove insisted the U.K. would be doing no such thing. “I made it perfectly clear to Vice President Šefčovič that we would not be withdrawing this legislation. He understood that,” Gove said.
“Of course, he regretted it,” he added.
Divisions exist in more areas than is often acknowledged on the U.K. side, according to Barniers account.
Johnson also faced a backlash at home, where several Conservative grandees (including one Brexiteer former leader) voiced their dismay at the governments willful and unabashed willingness to breach an international treaty. In the U.S., meanwhile, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi — the countrys top Democratic elected official — rammed home her warning to the U.K. that doing anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement (as the EU says the British plan would) would mean “they should not even think about” winning a U.S. trade deal. “What were they thinking?” she said.
“In more than 30 years as a diplomat I have not experienced such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation,” said Germanys ambassador to the U.K., capturing the general mood.
And yet, despite the dramatic diplomatic blow-up, trade talks between teams led by Michel Barnier and David Frost go on. Theories abound as to why Johnson has picked this moment to make such a bold move — one that appears to repudiate a deal he himself agreed. Some in the EU think it may be a negotiating ploy to force concessions from Brussels. If that is the case, the EU is determined not to take the bait.
“The U.K. would have probably preferred if we walked out of the negotiations until the bill is adjusted so that they could blame us for a no deal. But were not playing along with the blame game,” said one EU official.
“By setting a deadline and publishing such a clear statement we have made very clear that this crosses a line. If they dont respect that deadline, the EU can escalate via a wide range of legal measures, such as an infringement procedure. We wont link it with the negotiations on the future relationship, because thats exactly what they want.”
So it was that Barnier emerged from the eighth formal round of future relationship negotiations — the final day of which coincided with Gove and Šefčovičs meeting — with a pledge to carry on talking, and a pointed reminder that “mutual trust” was a necessary foundation for future ties.
Frost was if anything more upbeat, calling this weeks round of talks “useful” and not even mentioning the elephant in the room. “We remain committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October, as the prime minister set out earlier this week,” he said.
Pushback on all sides
Divisions exist in more areas than is often acknowledged on the U.K. side, according to Barniers account. Not just the question of the U.K.s state aid regime, but a range of concerns remain; particularly that the British might — if granted access to the EUs market on the terms they want — undercut EU environmental and labor standards. The battles over fisheries access and the dispute mechanisms that would govern a trade agreement also continue.
Nonetheless, Barnier said, the two teams would remain in touch.
For the EU, the mood was more of exasperation than despair. Whatever the ultimate goal or goals of Johnsons government, EU officials said the threat of breaching the Withdrawal Agreement was only poisoning the process.
Barnier said the two sides will keep in touch | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
“Simply, we will not be put under pressure,” a senior EU official said. “This bill might well be part of tactical moves to review Barniers mandate, which no member state wants to do, or put even more pressure on the ongoing negotiations where the U.K. is not ready to give in on level playing field [issues]. Our assessment is clear. We will not be put under pressure and [will] stay cool.”
The official said there was also no inclination for EU27 heads of state and government to spend any significant amount of time on Brexit at their European Council summit later this month, where the main discussion will focus on Turkey and the Mediterranean.
The reaction in the U.S. hasRead More – Source