Johnson claims the (oven ready) deal will be ready by September

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Tuesday saw the start of round seven of talks on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. The UK and the EU have now been in negotiations on their future relationship since 2 March 2020, which makes you wonder just what they have been talking about and why there’s been so little progress.

Part of this may well be down to the coronavirus restrictions for meetings, but undoubtedly the drive by the government to “get Brexit done” has led to inflexibility on the UK’s part. The fact that the UK decided not to request an extension despite coronavirus delays (which they could have done at any point up until 30 June) demonstrates that.

The last round of talks took place 20–23 July and revealed the considerable distance between the two sides, and just how deep rooted the problems are. It emerged that there are three red lines that Boris Johnson will not cross: no role for the European Court of Justice in the UK; the right to determine future UK laws without constraints; and an agreement on fisheries that shows that Brexit makes a real difference compared to the existing situation. For a prime minister who has done a remarkable number of U-turns in just one year, he has remained notably consistent with his red lines.

But as Michel Barnier noted in his press statement on 23 July, there are two significant sticking points – guarantees for a level playing field (including on state aid and standards) and a long-term solution for fisheries.

The level playing field issue is of huge significance for the success of any future trade deals. A House of Commons briefing explains that, “The purpose of level playing field commitments in trade agreements is to ensure that competition is open and fair and that businesses in one trading partner do not gain a competitive advantage and undercut their rivals from the other”. The EU’s concern remains that the UK wants access to the single market, but could undercut it and gain an unfair advantage through lowering standards or paying lower wages.

The other big issue is around fishing. It does seem rather strange that an industry that accounts for just 0.1 percent of the UK’s economy is something the government is willing to die in a ditch for, but it symbolises the entire thrust of the “take back control” Leave campaign narrative. Johnson wants to ensure that the UK, as an island, has control over its own waters, and what’s in them. Barnier, in contrast, says that, “common stocks need to be managed jointly – according to international law and the principle of responsible and sustainable management of resources”.

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Trust is not at a high premium between the two sides as they begin this latest round of talks. As the UK in a Changing Europe noted in its recent briefing, the EU is also monitoring the UK’s compliance with the obligations it signed up to under the Withdrawal Agreement. Although not legally binding, the Political Declaration has the status of an international treaty and was signed by Prime Minister Johnson on 17 October last year.

It sets the direction of the current negotiations, mentioning among other things, a commitment to an ambitious trading relationship on the basis of a free trade agreement and – as the Institute for Government explains – deep regulatory and customs co-operation and a level playing field for fair competition. Little wonder then that trust is being eroded, with the Telegraph reporting that Johnson won’t be bound by the Political Declaration, alongside reports of senior figures in the Tory party (Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis) now turning their fire on the Withdrawal Agreement, despite having voted for it.

Last night the chief negotiators went for dinner – presumably socially distanced. Today at 10am they start to talk turkey – or rather level playing field. If negotiations are as frosty as the last round, they probably won’t need reminding of social distancing rules. Number 10 remains upbeat, claiming a deal can still be done by September with the government continuing to work at ways to “plug the gaps” in the potential deal. Brexiters are less sanguine according to the Express, claiming the EU is failing to treat the UK as an independent sovereign nation by continuing to demand the UK follows EU standards in return for continued access to the single market. Either way, something has to give.

Shadow Brexit minister, Paul Blomfield, told the BBC on Monday that the prime minister has a very hands-off approach and he really needs to get a grip of the process. There’s not much sign of the “oven ready” deal we were promised last year says Blomfield, “and if we do reach October without that agreement, or with a sub-optimal agreement, then the economic impact on top of the difficulties we are going to face with coronavirus, is going to be very serious for jobs and the economy”.

As a reminder, last year Johnson promised us tariff and barrier-free trade, protection for workers’ rights and the environment. Indeed the Conservative manifesto stated that the deal was as good as done and claimed that Brexit would be concluded by January. The manifesto also said, “In parallel, we will legislate to ensure high standards of workers’ rights, environmental protection and consumer rights”. No wonder Barnier and his team are confused.

Still, a week is a long time in politics and Boris Johnson has past form on U-turns (A-levels, tracing app, free school meals, NHS surcharge, bereavement scheme, remote voting – and that’s just the recent list). There is time for another significant turn here. The government is undoubtedly bruised at the moment and quite rightly so, but many expect this set of talks to be yet another round of shadow boxing, with the real punches being thrown in September. Whatever happens, this is still a case of who blinks first and Johnson is just mad enough to cut off his eyelids first.

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