Brexit might not be at the top of anyone’s in-tray at the moment, but the clock is ticking on the UK’s current transition period with the European Union (EU), which allows the UK to operate as though it is more-or-less still a member state while both sides negotiate their future relationship. This expires on December 31.
It’s been well documented that the pandemic has made these negotiations more difficult, as representatives have been unable to meet in person. The talks, while still happening, are stuck in deadlock, meaning the default of no-deal Brexit remains the logical conclusion of this saga, now in its fifth year.
Both sides remain committed to striking a deal, but both sides have red lines that are incompatible with each other. The EU insists that if the UK wants tariff-free access to the EU’s enormous internal market, then it must make commitments to obey certain EU laws. The UK says the EU is making unreasonable demands and not respecting its sovereignty.
It has previously been suggested by some Brexit hardliners that the only way to make Brussels budge is to show that Britain is not only willing to walk away, but will thrive should it do so. Arguably, a version of this strategy previously had some degree of impact when talks were locked in earlier negotiations — most notably when Johnson managed to renegotiate the initial Brexit deal that he had inherited from his predecessor, Theresa May.
However, things are different now. Back then, the UK was still a member state leaving the bloc; now, it’s a third country, and the EU has moved on to the various bigger fish it needs to fry. These include passing its seven-year budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework or MFF) and coronavirus recovery package last week, with an attendant four days of bitter rows and negotiations.
“If Brexit is second in our list of priorities, imagine how far down the list it is of EU member states,” says Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. “All this stuff about Brussels better brace itself, compared to the €1.8 trillion [$2.1 trillion] they just signed off, it’s small beer.”
The pandemic remains a much more pressing emergency for the 27-nation bloc. “We are focused on the recovery of the European Union — that’s the priority,” said one EU diplomat who is not authorized to speak on the record. “When you’ve spent four days with the heads of every EU government arguing over trillions of euros, you start to see why Brexit is just not on our radar anymore. Unfortunately, the Brits are a little too self-involved to see that.”
Others in Brussels believe that last week’s budget agreement marked a major step forward in EU confidence, showing that if the bloc can come together on something so contentious as money, it can do so on external threats like Russia, the rise of China, political instability in America and, of course, Brexit.
“I think it proved that integration is alive and well, and that things might actually be easier without the Brits sitting around the table trying to stall everything,” said an EU official working on Brexit policy but not permitted to speak on the record. “I think it also showed that the German-Franco partnership is really kicking into action. They can credibly claim that through the mutualization of EU debt, they pushed the integration project forward in the most meaningful way for years. I think now there is a growing awareness that in light of the new cold war, uncertainty from America, Europeans are safer working together.”
The UK has previously said it would like Brexit negotiations to be wrapped up by autumn. This doesn’t leave much time for an agreement to be struck, and it’s uncertain how much political capital Brussels will be willing to spend on getting the deal done.
“It’s true that an agreement on MFF and the recovery fund gives the EU27 [member states] more headspace for Brexit but they won’t let it dominate their time or their thinking,” says Georgina Wright, a senior researcher on the Brexit team at the Institute for Government. “The EU’s focus is on economic recovery, the role of member states in EU decision-making, climate and the rule of law. Not on the UK.”
This might annoy Brexiteers in London, who remain furious at the EU’s demands for a trade deal and think Johnson needs to play hardball with Brussels. However, as the clock runs down to December, that might be riskier than they realize.
“Certain loud Brexiteers might like to shout that Brussels had better brace itself for the UK to walk away, but in reality, it’s going to hit the UK much harder than it will hit the EU,” says Menon. “The EU can better swallow the financial cost of no deal, meaning it can afford to choose the union over Britain, should it be asked to make that choice.”
When asked about Brexit after last week’s summit, several EU diplomats and officials pointed CNN to a lesser-noted agreement reached on €5 billion of contingency funds, in case no deal is reached. They heavily implied that the sum was big enough to show that the EU was serious about handling no deal, but small enough in comparison to the EU’s overall budget to indicate where Brexit lies in the bloc’s priorities.
With just over five months left until the end of the transition period and even less time to negotiate, whether Johnson decides to play hardball or not might be irrelevant. “Though the EU would much prefer a deal, it cannot be at any price,” says Wright. “They want a deal that is fair and balanced, but overall protects the integrity of their market. A deal that goes against that could be more politically costly for the EU than a no-deal outcome.”
And those hardline Brexiteers who have been advising Johnson to threaten walking away might find that it’s actually Brussels who is really prepared quietly to put the whole thing to sleep.