Brexit endgame? UK’s Johnson faces legacy-defining week

A November 15 deadline for a trade deal ahead of the UK’s year-end departure from the EU’s single market and customs union is fast approaching.

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing ahead with legislation that would rewrite parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal with the EU [File: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg]

Boris Johnson faces a pivotal week: deliver a trade deal with the European Union or risk a major rupture, and avoid a rift with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden over the U.K.’s controversial Brexit legislation.

After eight months of negotiations between the sides, Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used a phone call over the weekend to plot the way toward a trade deal ahead of the Nov. 15 deadline set by both parties.

Major differences still need to be bridged on the same issues that have plagued talks from the beginning: so-called level playing field rules for business, and access to British fishing waters.

The two chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, will try to thrash out their differences in London over the coming days. But even as they do so, events in the U.K. Parliament risk further souring ties and could still scupper a deal. Johnson confirmed he’s pushing ahead with legislation that rewrites parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal he struck with the EU last year, with key votes in the upper House of Lords scheduled for Monday.

“The parliamentary timetable goes ahead,” Johnson, who has called the Internal Market Bill vital for the functioning of the U.K.’s economy after Brexit, said in an interview with the Associated Press published Sunday.

The bill is controversial because it gives U.K. ministers power to unilaterally rewrite the rules of post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland — one of the most contentious issues in the entire EU divorce process. The government has said the legislation could break the law in a “specific and limited way.”

Heavy Defeat

Even though the Lords are likely to remove the most controversial clauses on Monday — the peers voted overwhelmingly to express “regret” at the legislation last month — Johnson is not expected to back down. One official said the government faces a heavy defeat in the Lords, but plans to fight to overturn the changes when the legislation returns to the House of Commons.

The EU is taking legal action against the U.K. over the Internal Market Bill, and European leaders have demanded that Johnson drop the controversial clauses relating to trade with Northern Ireland as the price of any wider accord.

But while the government’s decision to push on with the legislation is unlikely to derail talks by itself, its responses in Parliament and outside have the potential to foster distrust that could cast a shadow over negotiations.

It’s also not only the EU’s reaction that Johnson’s government has to worry about. In September, the draft bill’s publication triggered an angry reaction from Biden and four senior members of the U.S. Congress. They warned Johnson that any future U.K.-U.S. trade deal would be contingent on preserving the peace process in Northern Ireland and preventing the return of a hard border in Ireland — something the legislation threatens to do.

‘Casualty of Brexit’

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden said at the time on Twitter. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab denied the U.K. is on a collision course with the U.S. president-elect over Brexit, saying he’s confident issues related to Northern Ireland can be resolved in a way that doesn’t sour relations. He told the BBC the government has reassured Biden’s team it has “no intention of imperiling” Ireland’s peace process.

He also indicated that while the government listens “very carefully to our American friends,” it is not about to shift strategy on the Internal Market Bill, noting that Biden would be taking office after the end of the Brexit transition period on Dec. 31.

“I’m confident we will navigate all of those issues sensitively, correctly,” Raab said. “What the Americans will be looking for will be the opportunities of the future,” he said, including cooperation on Covid and climate change.

‘There to Be Done’

That assertion may be tested if the U.K. can’t reach a trade agreement with the EU that makes the controversial elements of the Internal Market Bill no longer needed. A deal is “there to be done, the outlines are pretty clear,” Johnson told the AP. “We just need to get them to do it if we can.”

But with the clock running down to Nov. 15, which both sides say is the very last moment a deal can be done if it is to be ratified by their respective parliaments on time, people familiar with the matter see four potential ways the next few days could play out.

The most likely scenario, according to officials close to the talks, is that another week of intensive negotiations could push the two sides further together — but not enough to talk of a deal by the end of the week. That would leave political leaders a choice on what to do about one or two outstanding issues if the majority of the work can be done by Jan. 1.

Another scenario sees things fall apart, even if it’s not what either side wants. Misjudging the opposite camp has been a theme throughout the Brexit negotiations. Both sides could also agree to extend talks beyond the deadline toward the end of the month, or even into December.

It’s also not out of the question that a deal can be reached this week. But the biggest disagreements between them — on fisheries especially — are fast becoming too political to sort out in the negotiating room. That leaves it firmly in the hands of Johnson and European leaders to resolve.

Source: Bloomberg