Michel Barnier’s speech to the EU Parliament characterised the state of play rather well when it comes to the ever-ongoing Brexit saga, which will continue to be a policy conundrum even after the fateful day of the 31st of December. Barnier declared that there were just hours left to strike a deal in a ‘moment of truth’, a deal which again seems to be falling from our grasp as the contentious issue of fisheries continues to put the two sides at odds. For once it seems it is not just the EU instructing the UK to change its position, but the UK telling the EU to change its. What makes a deal so difficult at this stage, however, does not just exclusively relate to the negotiating red lines but also the challenge of ratification that would arise given such a stringent timeline. The European Parliament has already decided that there will be no prospect of immediate ratification unless a deal is concluded by Sunday the 20th of December. That could well mean that even if, by some miracle at this stage, that a deal is concluded then a period trading on WTO rules is still an incredibly likely prospect.
In Barnier’s speech, the tone was certainly grave and carried with it a sense of urgency. This is rather unlike the typical attitude the European team has given off thus far; that of a confident strong block not panicked at all by the prospect of the UK leaving without a trade or future relationship agreed. There may have been an expectation amongst member states that the UK’s red lines would fall away, thus far that has not occurred even with the unjustified fear that the Prime Minister was going to utterly sell the country down the road and curtail to every demand. To my mind, the seemingly fruitless continuation of talks relates more to a desire to not be seen as the side that threw in the can, than any burgeoning optimism that an agreement was on the horizon. I’d go even further to say that it may relate to the ‘bad faith’ argument that could characterise potential post-Brexit legal fallouts, either in the immediate future or the years to follow.
There is no doubt that the larger member states will be confident in the EU’s ability to lay out contingency plans to prep the block for a no deal scenario, while others are clearly not. Belgian MEP and former Flemish leader Geert Bourgeois stated that a no deal would surpass “the damage of the coronavirus” in its impact on the EU and that the future aim should be to “stop other countries leaving the bloc.” The UK will have its own share of worries, of course, including queues of lorries and initial panic over new tariff and non-tariff barriers. The dragging out of talks will not have helped businesses understand and prepare for what direction we’re heading in, since the state of the talks seems to shift constantly in how likely or unlikely an agreement may be. However, the tariff barriers of WTO terms have been somewhat exaggerated – with almost half of EU imports from the UK subject to no new tariffs and those that are at a level that is manageable price-wise for the consumer (Source: The International Trade Centre’s Trade Map Project). Thanks to the work of Liz Truss, non-EU trade in a No Deal world also looks less bothersome by the day; continuity deals forming the basis of potential bigger and better agreements.
The state of Brexit looks again to be heading in a direction of uncertainty. Then again, anything can change quickly in the Brexit saga.