Correspondent in Brussels
The British Prime Minister traveled to Brussels yesterday to have dinner with the President of the European Commission, Úrsula von der Leyen. The first details, including the fact that he preferred to use the plane instead of the more environmentally friendly train that goes through the tunnel under the English Channel, already suggested that there was not much chance of reaching an agreement. European diplomatic sources insisted that the objective of this meeting was solely try to identify the most important points that prevent the British from accepting European conditions, to focus on them the possible solutions in the coming days, in an attempt to find a solution “in extremis” before the end of the year.
Johnson arrived at the Berlaymont Building, the Commission’s headquarters, shortly after 8 p.m. They posed for the photographers with the president of the community executive before retiring to a meeting room with their top advisers for a half-hour discussion. Then they went up to dinner on the 13th floor where a three-course menu awaited them and a very redundant discussion about the same issues that have been pending for months. It was not ruled out that in the best of cases, negotiations would resume today between the teams chaired by Michel Barnier on the European side and David Frost on the British side.
However, the chances of this plan being successful are pretty slim, judging by the spirit in which the Briton left his capital. In a parliamentary appearance before getting on the plane, he already made it clear that no prime minister could accept the trade terms offered by the EU. “Our friends in the EU are currently insisting that if they pass a new law in the future that we in this country do not comply with or do not want to pass a similar law, then they want the automatic right to punish and retaliate.” Johnson was referring to the European requirement that in order to obtain a free trade agreement the United Kingdom should respect a minimum level of common legislation regarding the rules that apply in the EU in the protection of consumers, health, environmental or labor regulations, because otherwise their companies could work with an advantage over the community ones and continue to operate in the European market.
This principle is so obvious to the European side that it insists that it cannot accept a solution that results in the UK gaining a competitive advantage by leaving the EU. Johnson also could not convince Brexit supporters to assume that he has left the country bound by European law, now that they can no longer influence its development. The second aspect in which Johnson does not see any possibilities of agreement is that of fishing. In the aforementioned appearance, he said again that in his opinion “the EU believes that the United Kingdom should be the only country in the world that does not have sovereign control over its fishing waters” and therefore “I do not think these are terms that any first Minister of this country could accept.
In reality, as a veteran diplomat from one of the most important EU countries confessed yesterday, there is little that can be done by the European side, taking into account that “in the last two months nothing has moved” despite the obvious rush of the calendar. It is therefore very likely that at today’s summit the European leaders will entrust to the Commission the task of preparing everything for a disconnection without agreement at midnight on 31 December.
What Johnson is seeing at the moment are the real consequences of having chosen to leave the EU and that could not be irrelevant in any case. The UK become a third country you have full capacity to decide with whom you want to trade, But if you want to do it with the EU, you will have to accept the conditions they ask for, or renounce it. It will happen the same with the United States, regardless of the administration in charge. In fact, many in Brussels consider that this apparent concession on Irish protocol has been made with more of the US president-elect in mind Joe Biden, who clearly supports Ireland. And in fact, having re-established the mechanism to control goods going from the island of Great Britain to Northern Ireland can be seen as a preparation for the rupture, since this protocol was intended to apply precisely if there is no agreement of free trade between the whole of the UK and the EU.
Ireland, the most affected country, and Germany, the largest economy in the EU, have already indicated that if there are no prospects for an agreement, it will be necessary to start preparing for a breakdown situation. Johnson, for his part, insisted yesterday that he is sure that even if there is no agreement “investments will rain on us.” Perhaps, but for now in London they have already rushed to prepare an air transport system for vaccines, which they have to import from the mainland, because they anticipate that there could be gigantic traffic jams of trucks at customs from January 1.