Dominic Cummings arrives at 10 Downing St. in London. File photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Dominic Cummings arrives at 10 Downing St. in London. File photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Brexit deadlines have passed, now it’s make-your-mind-up time

By Bloomberg Time of article published Nov 13, 2020

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by Ian Wishart, Alberto Nardelli, Dara Doyle

European Union officials say it's make-your-mind-up time for Boris Johnson. Does he want a trade deal with the bloc, or not?

Another week of negotiations -- one that was supposed to be decisive -- will end Friday with little progress made in the main areas of disagreement, according to three EU officials familiar with the situation. While both sides can see what a final agreement would look like, Brussels officials insist that reaching one will require the UK prime minister to move first, a stance their British counterparts reject.

The exit of one of Johnson's top aide less than 50 days before the UK is due to leave the single market, and the planned departure of another, has injected fresh uncertainty into the process. EU officials have been left speculating whether the departure of two of the most senior figures from the Leave campaign increases or reduces the likelihood that the prime minister will walk away without a deal.

"I see what is happening now in Downing Street and see this as quite a chaotic situation," Manfred Weber, leader of the largest group in the European Parliament and an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told BBC Radio on Friday. "We need a clear idea from Boris Johnson now, and I think it's now time for leadership."

In the negotiating room, there was little movement this week on the three key issues that have bedevilled the talks for the past eight months -- the level playing field for business, access to U.K. fishing waters, and how any accord is enforced.

Progress on the first has been hampered by the U.K.'s reluctance to make specific commitments to abide by any future changes in the bloc's rules, EU officials said. While both sides are inching closer to agreement on how any deal will be enforced, the U.K. is resisting EU calls for disagreements over the level playing field and fisheries to be included in any wider dispute-resolution system.

EU officials blame the lack of progress on Johnson, saying he hasn't decided whether he is prepared to compromise to reach a deal or not.

A UK official disputed that characterization, saying it's a sign the bloc has finally realized that Britain isn't prepared to cave in on points of principle. Johnson "wants a deal if there is a deal to be had," the official said. "We need to see some realism and creativity from their side if we are to bridge the significant gaps that remain."

Both sides had previously pinpointed Oct. 15 as the deadline to reach an accord to allow enough time for their respective parliaments to ratify any agreement. But the negotiations will now run beyond the additional three weeks scheduled. Talks will resume in Brussels on Monday, and the EU has suggested it is prepared to continue the deliberations into December if necessary, two people said.

The departure Wednesday of Lee Cain, Johnson's senior media adviser, has irked Brexiters in Downing Street, including Dominic Cummings, Johnson's most powerful adviser and architect of the winning Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum. Cummings on Thursday quit his post and will leave by the end of the year, a person familiar with the matter said.

David Frost, Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator, and Oliver Lewis, his deputy, were also unhappy -- but have decided to stay on, people familiar with the matter said.

According to one, the developments may have weakened the hand of those, like Cummings and Cain, who would be happy to leave without a deal, but that doesn't mean an agreement is certain: Frost wants to strike a deal, but not at any cost.

European officials find it notoriously difficult to read British politics -- but that hasn't stopped them from trying to work out for themselves what the power struggle in Downing Street means for Brexit.

One senior EU official speculated that Frost's decision to stay put raises the chance a deal won't be reached because of his ties to Cain and Cummings, who at one stage favoured walking away from the negotiations.

But people closer to the talks say that Frost is working hard toward a deal and that his decision to stay makes one more likely. Having been picked by Johnson last year to lead the negotiations, he has since been promoted to the role of National Security Adviser, a post he is set to take up when the Brexit talks have been concluded. That means he has a personal stake in getting an agreement, according to a person familiar with the UK side.


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