LONDON – Britain’s Brexit talks with the European Union broke again on Friday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was tired and ready to leave the bloc’s trading system without deals, and its chief the negotiator refused to hold talks scheduled for next week in London.
European leaders reacted coldly to Mr Johnson’s threat, signaling that they were ready to continue the conversation and acknowledging that both sides should provide a basis for reaching a trade agreement by 31 December.
Mr Johnson, who set an arbitrary deadline this week to decide whether to continue talks, issued a warning after a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, in which the prime minister called the UK̵7;s call for major concessions unfounded.
“They want a permanent ability to control our legislative freedom, fishing in a way that is obviously unacceptable to an independent country,” Mr Johnson said in a statement from Downing Street. “With a high heart and full confidence, we will prepare to accept the alternative.”
For all its fuss, history has suggested that negotiations are less likely to fail than to enter the final act, promising even more theatricality and skill to characterize the Brexit drama from the beginning.
There are real gaps between Britain and the European Union: they run counter to fishing quotas, an issue that is extremely politically sensitive in neighboring France. And both sides have not yet agreed on rules governing state aid to industry, or on how to resolve disputes over this funding.
The calendar poses another risk: as the deadline approaches, even the loss of weeks or more of negotiations can make it difficult for the parties to reach a timely settlement. If they fail, Britain will have to start trading with the bloc under what Mr. Johnson euphemistically calls Australian rules – in other words, under the terms of the World Trade Organization.
“We will prosper as an independent free trade state, controlling our own borders, fisheries and establishing our own laws,” he said.
In fact, analysts say the UK will face serious disruptions, including long queues of trucks near the English Channel, and a severe blow to its economic growth, in addition to the already painful dislocation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Britain’s battle to contain the latest wave of infections has almost overshadowed the latest news about Brexit.
Given these dire realities, analysts say they still believe Mr Johnson is bluffing and eventually making a deal. According to them, the likelihood that Britain will have to compromise makes it much more important for the prime minister to have tough negotiations with the European Union.
Sam Lowe, a senior fellow at the Center for European Reform, a research institute, described the prime minister’s statement as a “theater of high stakes” and said he still believes the deal is more likely than not because both sides have recently crossed some of their red lines.
“Such performances are an integral part of the negotiations,” he said. “We are at a critical point, where we need to make difficult political compromises, but where there is also a need to seem tough to the domestic audience.”
Mr Johnson’s move was a “controlled explosion”, said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at Eurasia Group. But this masked potential opportunities for compromise, particularly with France on fishing rights.
Downing Street claimed that the European Union had effectively concluded the negotiations by adopting official conclusions from its summit, which called on Britain to compromise, and did not mention the intensification of negotiations.
British officials have said there is no point in further talks next Monday unless the European Union is ready to speed up discussions on legal texts without requiring Britain to take any steps.
Without such conditions, officials say, the only thing worth discussing would be practical preparations for leaving without an agreement, including how to deal with issues such as aviation, road transport and nuclear cooperation.
However, European leaders seemed to meet some of the conditions required by Britain, in particular when German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that both sides needed to give and receive.
“We have asked Britain to remain open to compromise in order to reach an agreement,” Merkel said on Thursday. “This, of course, means that we will also have to compromise.”
On Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed to “step up” talks – as Britain had requested – and said her negotiating team would travel to London next week.
Later that day, Downing Street said Mr Johnson’s negotiator, David Frost, told Europeans it made no sense for them to come, but added that he and his interlocutor, Michel Barnier, would still speak next week – offering to remain open, even if official there will be no negotiations.
Mr Barnier’s spokesman described another conversation, saying the two had agreed to talk again Monday, “to discuss the structure of those talks”.
Financial markets reacted to the latest drama, apparently remembering that back in February, Mr. Johnson threatened to withdraw from the talks within four months if things did not go his way.
“Some sword strikes are an integral part of any international trade negotiation,” wrote Callum Pickering, a senior economist at Bank of Berenberg in London. “In our view, Johnson’s statement is likely to be a negotiation tactic in the hope of concluding an agreement, rather than a genuine desire to end current negotiations immediately.”
However, British business has been less calm, warning of significant price increases for consumers due to tariffs and delays and border disruptions.
“The prime minister’s statement signals that we are heading into very dangerous territory,” said Ian Wright, executive director of the Food and Beverage Federation and the British Industry Association. “If Brexit is abandoned, buyers will literally pay a high price.”
Ellie Rennison, a senior policy adviser at the Institute of Directors who represents British business leaders, said “preparing for no deal in the middle of a pandemic would be a Herculean challenge for many businesses.”