It is the week of truth for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. And yes, that is about the Brexit often said, but it is real (again) like this. We’re lining up where the negotiations are still hanging up and where it’s going.
By the end of next week, the EU and the UK must agree on how they will deal with each other and act in the future. If that doesn’t work, there’s not enough time to close a deal by the end of the year.
The British left the European Union on 31 January this year. At that time, a transition period started in which little changed for ordinary people and businesses. From midnight on 31 December something will change, because then that transitional period will end.
The rules of the World Trade Organisation will then enter into force. This will provide additional taxes and customs controls for British goods coming to the EU. Long delays on motorways and ports are also expected, due to considerable administrative pressure. British companies are not allowed to do more business in the EU. No desired outcome for either side, so negotiations are still in progress.
Rem Korteweg, Brexit specialist at Clingendael Institute, agrees on quite a lot of the issues covered by a so-called Free Trade Agreement. There are, however, four major points on which the parties must agree this week. This is what the negotiations are about.
- The Irish border: after Brexit, the Irish border will be the only place where the EU (Ireland) and the UK touch each other on land. The parties must finally agree on how goods and people are controlled there.
- Fisheries: it was agreed in the 1970s that European fishermen could fish in all EU territorial waters. So French and Dutch fishermen are allowed to fish in Scottish waters. Now that the British are separating, British fishermen want those waters for themselves. They want agreements on how many fish other fishermen can catch. Fishing is not a major economic sector, but is a politically sensitive issue for both the Netherlands, France and the UK.
- The level playing field. In this respect, everyone adheres to the same trade rules in the EU’s internal market. The British do not want to commit to the level playing field rules, which would diminish too much of their independence. The EU lays down strict rules, for example state aid.
- Governance. The rules of the trade agreement. It lays down what the parties will do if, for example, the UK does not comply with the rules. This is normally a long process, which the EU wants to speed up.
The most important point is the level playing field, whereby everyone who acts in the EU’s internal market must abide by the same rules. ‘That is a political issue for the UK, an economic issue for the EU’, says briefly. ‘The EU fears a Singapore on the Thames, an independent state with more lax rules, jeopardising the internal market. But the British want to be able to deviate from EU rules.”
What’s Johnson doing?
The biggest question – for months – is what Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually wants, says Brexit specialist Rem Korteweg. Politically, he’s in an impossible position. “He must be able to sell his balance to his supporters,” says Korteweg. “He’s already critical of him, for how he handled the lockdown and pandemic. If he admits it, it’s politically dangerous for him.”
“It’s a choice between two evils,” says briefly. “It is therefore fundamentally uncertain until the last moment. The EU will continue to negotiate until it is no longer possible, but there is a limit,” he says.
In short, they are unique negotiations. “Normally negotiations are conducted to remove barriers to trade, but now they are being introduced. You usually negotiate with each other instead of each other away. In addition, these talks take place in an atmosphere of mistrust, under extremely high time pressure.”
And even if an agreement is reached, that is a “flimsy” deal, says Korteweg. “In view of the current situation, everything is more economically damaging to both parties. So nobody’s really happy. Unless there’s no deal, it’s gonna cost more money.”