Last chance for agreement

Dominique Cummings’s departure boosts hopes of EU compromise and Britain in Brexit

BRUSSELS-RESPONSE. Another week of intensive negotiations on the future EU-UK trade relationship has passed and there is still no white smoke. The departure of Dominique Cummings, Vote Leave’s chief executive and Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser, over the weekend has raised expectations in some quarters that the British prime minister was ready to step in to reach an agreement. As of late Friday, this had not been confirmed.

Meanwhile, a new case of COVID-19 on Thursday, in the team of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, led to a brief suspension of live talks.

The deadlines are now suffocating: the transition period, which was part of last year’s Exit Agreement, expires on December 31st. If no agreement has been reached by then, trade relations between the two sides from the new year will be conducted on the terms of the World Trade Organization.

The compromise, moreover, cannot be reached at the last minute, as it will then have to be examined by a number of European Parliament committees (a total of 11 examined last year’s Exit Agreement), translated into the 23 other languages ​​of the European Union and voted on. of this the Plenary Session of the body. According to the Guardian, the scheduled date for the vote – December 16 – has already been abandoned and December 28 is being discussed as a possible alternative.

The non-agreement will be a heavy blow to Member States such as, above all, Ireland, but also to Belgium and the Netherlands – but especially to the British economy. In services, which account for 80% of the UK economy and 46% of total exports, 41% of export activity is in the European Union. Respectively, 48% of the British exports of goods in 2018 were destined for the EU, while only 6% of the exports of the EU member states. was destined for the United Kingdom (among the Member States, Greece has the second lowest index of exports of goods, as a percentage of GDP, to the United Kingdom across the EU).

Officials in Brussels have avoided making any predictions about the direction Boris Johnson will take, but insist the choice, whether he wants the British economy to stay in line with the European one or whether he wants to follow a different path, is his own.
They ask for plan B

In any case, there are growing voices calling for Member States to be more prepared for Plan B – the end of the transition period without a new trade agreement. At a teleconference of European Union heads of state and government on Thursday, Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, among others, urged the European Commission to speed up its preparations for emergency measures to avoid scenes of chaos.

Johnson himself, who is in quarantine after contacting a member of his party who was diagnosed with coronavirus, speaking at a distance cabinet meeting on Tuesday, said he did not intend to compromise on “basic principles”.

He told his ministers that “important issues” were still pending in order to reach an agreement, especially on a level playing field (the so-called level-playing field) and fisheries rights. “We are working hard to find solutions that respect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, but it is by no means certain that an agreement is possible and there is very little time left.”

The issue of the rights of fishermen from EU Member States to continue fishing in British waters remains a thorn – perhaps the most difficult – in the negotiations. This, despite the fact that, according to Bloomberg, it concerns goods worth only 650 million euros per year (the total “fish” of Europeans in British waters), while bilateral trade reaches half a trillion euros. Negotiations on the issue have not progressed since the summer, and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Cowney commented last week that “they are not in a good position”.

According to Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, however, Cummings’s departure, combined with fears of a Scottish independence movement and the influence of the Labor Party’s most effective opposition under Kir Starmer, strengthens chances of reaching an agreement by the end of November.
The rupture

Cummings’s ousting from Downing Street caused a wave of relief in the Conservative parliamentary group and in the upper echelons of the British public administration. Cummings was the dominant influence in Johnson’s staff and the architect of the “Get Brexit Done” campaign, which led to the latter’s landslide victory in last year’s election.