Bluff and brinksmanship: How Britain got a Brexit trade deal done


© Reuters. British Prime Minister Johnson is holding a news conference on the Brexit trade agreement in London

By John Chalmers, Elizabeth Piper and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS / LONDON (Reuters) – When trade negotiations with the United Kingdom closed on 9 December, an EU official summed up the mood in Brussels and wrote in a note: “The British … take us on a journey, we must remain firm . “

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson and the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen had just met for dinner in the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the 27-year-old EU director in Brussels, and could not resolve the blockade of fisheries and competition policy.

Although these differences and many others were resolved on Thursday with an agreement to avert a ‘rock-break’ to a $ 900 billion trade relationship, the pattern of mutual mistrust is highlighted by the note seen by Reuters.

This mistrust is likely to ruin future relations as the UK and the EU address a huge slate of unfinished business ranging from trade in services to co-operation on criminal matters and security.

“Unfortunately, trust is not something that comes overnight,” said a senior EU diplomat based in Brussels.

The economic consequences of Britain’s violent breach of its historic European allies will be painfully clear – but the geostrategic implications will no doubt be even greater.

For one of Europe’s most important military and economic powers to avoid the EU, as the bloc seeks to become a cohesive counterweight to Russian and Chinese security, it will shrink Europe’s transatlantic community with the United States and Canada.

Britain formally left the EU in January last year, 47 years after accession and 3-1 / 2 years after its ‘Brexit’ referendum, but then entered a transition period in which rules on trade and travel were frozen until the end of 2020.

EU officials and diplomats described the negotiations to introduce a trade deal after the transition on 1 January 2021 as an exhausting exercise of bluff and brinksmanship.

On the EU side, the 27 member states remained united under their main negotiator, the Frenchman Michel Barnier, an indefensible defender of their internal market of 450 million consumers.

The British side was harder to measure because it sometimes tried to exploit differences between member states and often seemed to be governed by the degree of difficulty in domestic policy, EU officials said.

Yet to mass circulation newspapers at home and Brexit ideologues in his government, Johnson’s hard line with Brussels on competition rules and access to British waters for EU fishing boats was hailed as a much-needed claim to sovereignty.


Britain has always been ambivalent about the project to unite and rebuild Europe from the ashes of World War II.

It ended late in 1973, but its economic liberalism trembled with much of continental Europe, and it never joined the single currency, the euro, or the Schengen zone for passport-free travel.

British Euroscepticism was blown for decades by much of its press, whose members – including Johnson, a Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels in 1989-94 – linked the federalist ambitions of ‘Eurocrats’ and championed the EU’s regulatory zeal.

Johnson once stumbled across rules in a poll that, according to him, prohibited the recycling of a tea bag or children under eight who burst balloons.

For many Britons, Brexit has an intellectual rationale: that the United Kingdom must cut itself off from the stagnant economies of the EU and compete with a project that they are convinced is doomed to fail.

Yet Britain’s troubled relations with the EU have also been controversial at home.

Margaret Thatcher’s aggression towards Brussels led to a conservative party coup ending her prime minister in 1990. The 2016 Brexit referendum game by one of her successors, David Cameron, led to his resignation, with 52-48% divided by voters, polarized British society. .

On the other side of the canal, many have long thought that Britain is simply ill-suited.

The French war hero Charles de Gaulle vetoed twice his attempts to join what was the European Economic Community in the 1960s. Five decades later, President Emmanuel Macron pushed for a quick British exit after the referendum, worrying that Eurosceptic sentiment could seep across the continent.

Britain’s boldest step in the trade negotiations came last summer, when an inner circle around Johnson met to find a way out of the stalemate. Their solution: trigger a crisis.

With the words of a source close to the group, they decided to “put a gun on the table” by drafting legislation that would explicitly override parts of the withdrawal agreement, the divorce treaty that Britain had already signed with the EU.

Several British officials told Reuters that the single market law had been a shock tactic to counter what they saw as EU efforts to prevent Britain from regaining its “sovereignty” before the final exit from the bloc’s lane on 31st. January.

But the move made Brussels so much more determined to ensure it could enforce a trade deal.

Von der Leyen spelled it out: “Trust is good, but law is better … And crucially, in the light of recent experience, a strong system of government is essential to ensure that what has been agreed is actually done.”

The strategists behind the gambit included some, said sources who felt Britain had been humiliated in previous talks and was determined not to let that happen again.

Britain’s tabloid press was indignant in 2019 when Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May – another Conservative prime minister who fell victim to the fight for Europe – had to sit outside a summit for hours while, as the Sun newspaper put it, “the EU giggled. the leaders on langoustine and ducks “.

A piece of cake

At a summit in Salzburg a year earlier, the chairman, Donald Tusk, posted a picture on Instagram of himself at a cake stand next to May with the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.”

Jibben referred to a plan proposed by May for the withdrawal agreement that the EU had publicly sought as a cherry-picking of the benefits of membership – and to Johnson’s belief that Britain could do just that, “have its cake and eat it”.

“The cake business certainly had an impact,” said a British source. Some saw it as tasteless because May is diabetic.

A source involved in the divorce talks last year said that when delegations broke for refreshments, they would often sit on opposite sides of the room and stare at each other in silence.

Rancor over the UK Internal Market Bill set the tone for negotiations as the deadline for the end of the year threatened.

A spear broke out on Twitter between British retailer David Frost and the normally slick Barnier. Both sides dived into fishing rights, ways of settling future disputes and “equal terms” rules to guarantee fair competition, including state aid to companies.

Britain declared in October that it had completely suspended negotiations. But a week later, after Brussels had acknowledged that both sides needed to compromise, they resumed – a signal that London hailed as proof that its strategy had worked.

Johnson’s dinner on December 9 with von der Leyen and the two main dealers – ironically including turbot, a flatfish found in British waters – threw a stark contrast between the two sides as photographs taken in advance went viral.

On one side stood the Commission’s elegantly dressed German President and French negotiator; on the other hand Johnson in a bad fit with his trademark restless hair and his dealer wearing a tie that had been tied too short.

A British source said Johnson had gone in with suggestions and “really tried to find a way to a solution” but had been stoned and left with a sense that “things were very gloomy”.

Another source close to the talks said Johnson’s passion had not had the charm of the more formal von der Leyen.

“I don’t think one of them would normally invite the other to a dinner party,” the source said. “Chalk and cheese.”

The EU memo sent after dinner said London was apparently trying to squeeze out concessions by declaring they were ready to travel on January 1 without an agreement.

It took another two weeks of negotiations, stretching in the evenings and over weekends, to find a deal.

An EU diplomat close to the talks said the last 4-1 / 2 years had been a “tiring melodrama” that had bulged goodwill and cut off enthusiasm for further talks.

“The divorce was supposed to be amicable. But our foreign spouse went crazy and it didn’t go smoothly,” he said. “Somehow we will still sit together. Loving.”

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