Johnson enters Brexit decision day with EU refusing to play ball
Boris Johnson is set to decide on Friday whether to abandon trade talks with the European Union after the bloc’s leaders refused to give him the clear signal he wants in order to remain at the table.
The UK prime minister, who said he would assess whether a deal was reachable after this week’s summit of EU leaders, must form an opinion based on an evening of mixed messages from Brussels that culminated in German Chancellor Angela Merkel offering an olive branch as she left around midnight.
Earlier, David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, used Twitter to express his disappointment that the summit’s official communique didn’t contain the hoped-for pledge to inject fresh impetus into the negotiations and put the onus firmly on the British government to make concessions.
Officials on both sides said that the exchanges had increased the risks of the UK walking away -- and ultimately crashing out of its post-Brexit transition period without an agreement. That would mean millions of businesses and consumers would face additional costs and disruption when Britain leaves the single market on Dec. 31.
“We’ve asked the UK - in terms of a deal - to continue to be open to compromise,” Merkel said. “That of course includes that we need to be ready to compromise. Each side has its red lines.”
The idea of compromise on the EU side was also missing from the communique, published before the main part of the leaders’ discussion on Brexit, that riled Britain’s lead negotiator.
“Surprised EU is no longer committed to working “intensively” to reach a future partnership,” Frost said in a Tweet. “Also surprised by suggestion that to get an agreement all future moves must come from U.K. It’s an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation.”
Frost sent his Tweets minutes after his opposite number, Michel Barnier, began briefing reporters on his discussions with the EU leaders, a move that several European diplomats said had gone down terribly in the room.
Barnier told reporters that he was prepared to step up talks even if his political masters hadn’t said so in their communique.
“We want to give these negotiations every chance to be successful,” he said. “I shall say to David Frost we’re prepared to speed up negotiations in the next few days.”
But Frost had already issued his verdict.
European officials brushed off Frost’s complaints and insisted they won’t persuade the bloc to shift its stance, and several voiced irritation, asking not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. Two said they judged the comments were aimed at Frost’s domestic audience and two others said they might even serve to harden the EU’s position.
The EU wants the UK to make concessions on state aid, limiting the subsidies government can hand out to businesses, before it contemplates its own compromises on access to Britain’s fishing waters.
France is sticking to a tough line on fisheries and Merkel’s call for compromise on the EU side hinted at the tensions that the bloc’s 27 member states have been trying to keep under wraps.
The leaders said the EU and UK should “continue negotiations in the coming weeks” and called on the UK to “make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible,” according to the summit communique.
Johnson will assess the mood of the EU based on signals from leaders and the content of their discussion, according to a person familiar with the UK position who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. Prior to the summit, Frost had been expected to advise Johnson not to abandon talks, the person said.
“If conditions aren’t met, it’s possible we won’t have an agreement,” French President Emmanuel Macron said as he arrived at the summit. “We are ready for that.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.