Last chance for Brexit

Last chance for Brexit

Hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal rose following reports that the UK and the EU had overcome some of their remaining differences. The prospects of an agreement had seemed bleak last week, with both sides predicting that the talks would fail, and it was reported that the Royal Navy was poised to stop EU fishing boats operating in British waters. But Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, agreed in a call on Sunday to “go the extra mile” for a deal, and von der Leyen confirmed the next day that there had been “movement” on the vexed issue of so-called level playing field provisions.

Brussels has reportedly dropped the idea of a “ratchet clause” that would have imposed automatic tariffs on Britain if it failed to keep up with new EU rules. The UK, in turn, has accepted the principle that a formal mechanism is needed to prevent systemic divergences that distort trade between the two sides. On the other big sticking point of fishing rights, however, the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned that talks were going backwards, raising the prospect of negotiations dragging on until the end of the year.

Will realpolitik triumph over ideology and deliver a lastminute deal? We must hope so, said The Times, for it’s “overwhelmingly in the interests of both sides”. But the EU must take care not to press its advantage too far. If the only deal on offer is one that “sets the stage for years of fraught negotiations every time Britain wants to change a rule”, Johnson may decide we’re better off walking away, given that we’re in line for a fair amount of disruption at the end of the transition period, whatever happens. We certainly don’t want anything like the “incessant sector-by-sector negotiations that make the EU’s relationship with Switzerland so tiresome”, said The Independent. We need a looser approach that essentially just enforces “good neighbourliness”.

Jingoistic headlines about sending “gunships to guard our fish” hardly inspire a spirit of friendly partnership, said The Guardian. Nor has Johnson’s long record of “telling lies about Europe” given the EU much grounds for trusting Britain to play fair over future trade arrangements. Until last week, after all, the UK’s internal market bill contained clauses that would have allowed Britain to ignore international law and its own treaties. You can’t blame the EU for seeking watertight safeguards to protect its “rules-based” single market.