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Viewpoint: EU Summit - Boris' Make or Break Brexit?


Over the past year, we have witnessed countless 'make or break' summits, so many 'deadlines' and numerous threats of a 'no deal' exit, all of which have amounted to nothing. The United Kingdom officially left the European Union on 31 January 2020 when the Withdrawal Agreement came into force. This marked the start of a transition period due to last until 31 December 2020, providing time for businesses and citizens to adapt. As a third country, the UK could enter into negotiations with the EU on their future partnership.

In early September however, London's plans for an internal market and its subsequent impact on the Withdrawal Agreement, revealed to breach international law. The EU displayed genuine anger, with European Council President Charles Michel tweeting, 'Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship'. This development forced Brexit back onto agendas earlier than planned, and senior EU officials stated Boris Johnson's internal market bill has 'really hardened the Europeans [position]'.

The Summit will be a chance for EU leaders to shape the endgame of negotiations. Michael Barnier, the bloc's chief negotiator, has said October 31st is the 'realistic deadline' for an agreement to be reached. With documentation that runs to hundreds of pages, legal cleansing and approval needed by the European Parliaments and national governments, this October Summit leaves very little time for a deal. It is not inevitable however, and therefore negotiations continue.

What are the sticking points?

If a free trade deal does emerge, it is unlikely to be particularly ambitious as there simply has not been time. Even with this limited aim, negotiators are struggling to agree on some fundamental issues:

  • Level the playing field; the EU wants the UK to continue to follow closely their rules on state aid (financial assistance given by government to businesses), however the UK believe as an independent country it should not do so.
  • Fishing; the UK wants full access to EU markets to sell its fish, however in return the EU wants full access for its boats to fish in UK waters. As an independent coastal state, British negotiators say it is not possible.
  • Governance of future relationship; a point which has been made increasingly difficult as a result of Boris Johnson's move to override the Brexit treaty. European Court of Justice rule on this is a firm NO to ardent Brexiteers.

Why is fishing so contested?

Fish has always been a contentious subject in Britain's relationship with the EU, despite accounting for only 0.1% of the UK's economy and less than 1% of the EU's. Fishing was a large part of the Leave campaign and became a symbol of British sovereignty to many, therefore the UK is holding firm. Coastal states face huge cuts to fishing quotas at the end of this year when Britain will regain control over its coastal waters and fisheries if governments fail to compromise.

Eight nations in the EU currently have boats that range into British waters; however, most are unlikely to block a Brexit deal solely based on fishing rights. French President Emmanuel Macron however, is under pressure from the politically powerful fishing lobby, and whilst still wary of the Gilets Jaunes protests, he is keen to show support for French workers. It has become the most explosive element of the negotiations with Boris Johnson telling Macron to back down. France has also come under pressure from other EU countries to make concessions, whilst Michael Barnier hopes the issue will note explode at Thursday's summit.

Talks continue on these issues as both parties are intent on levelling the playing field to ensure businesses on one side do not have an unfair advantage over their competitors. Whilst the EU wants the UK to remain following their rules, the UK argue the whole point of Brexit is to break free. It is worth remembering that negotiations are not only trade focused; important talks about police and security co-operation are also taking place. It is easy to see however, that if trade talks fall apart it is unlikely there will be much meaningful agreement on anything else.

So, will there be a basic deal? Yes, it is possible, if both sides make concessions at the EU summit this Thursday however, there are no guarantees. Even with a deal, the UK's relationship with the EU will look very different at the end of the year. And if talks fail, businesses could only have a few weeks to prepare for the abrupt change, in times when many are already struggling.

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