The decision to keep Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Lane talking, despite being deceived over the past few days, is more than just declaring the talks dead. But the tone of their joint statement marked such a dramatic change, motivating everyone, but the most incredible pessimism that is now on a deal cards.
Both leaders described their phone call as “useful” and acknowledged that there were important issues that remained unresolved, but acknowledged that it was right to “go the extra mile” to reach an agreement. Gone are the calls for “significant differences left over,” and they have not set a new timeline for reaching an understanding.
As Britain moves further away from the EU’s regulatory system, discussions in Brussels focus on ensuring a level playing field of fair competition and how to deal with deviation from the norm. Both sides have agreed to meet current environmental and labor standards, but the EU has called for a mechanism to address any competitive gap that could open up if it fails to meet its standards one year and the other does not.
Both sides appear to have moved on, with the European Union agreeing that any such arrangement should be mutually exclusive, and Britain acknowledging that there could be some “re-balancing” through the application of tariffs. On Sunday morning, Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb suggested that Britain was ready for retaliatory tariffs for certain areas affected by deviations from the norm, but that blanket tariffs were not a “nuclear” option.
Another major unresolved issue is fisheries, where both sides are at odds over how much access European naval boats should have to British waters. In Britain and some European coastal states, especially France, the issue is economically trivial but politically important.
If both sides make progress on the level playing field, fishing is a number game that can be solved in complex calculations involving fish, money and time.
The British threat to use gunboats to see French fishermen would encourage more enthusiastic Brexiters and embellish the domestic narrative of Johnson’s toughness to persuade the EU to give in to his demands.