Brexit may not be at the top of the list right now, but time is running out for the UK’s current transition period with the European Union (EU), which allows the UK to operate as s ‘it was more or less. one more member state while the two sides negotiate their future relationship. This expires on December 31.
It is well documented that the pandemic has made these negotiations more difficult as representatives have not been able to meet in person. Talks, while still ongoing, are stalled, meaning the no-deal Brexit default remains the logical conclusion to this saga, which is now in its fifth year.
However, things are different now. At the time, the UK was still a member state leaving the bloc; now it’s a third country, and the EU has moved on to the various big fish it needs for frying. These include the adoption of its seven-year budget (the multi-year financial framework or MFF) and the coronavirus recovery program last week, with four days of bitter bickering and negotiations.
“If Brexit is second on our priority list, imagine how high it is on the list of EU member states,” says Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. “Everything about Brussels is preparing better, compared to the 1.8 trillion euros [$2.1 trillion] they just signed, it’s a little beer. ”
The pandemic remains a much more urgent emergency for the bloc of 27 nations. “We are focusing on relaunching the European Union – this is the priority,” said one European diplomat who is not authorized to speak officially. “When you spent four days with the heads of every government in the EU arguing over billions of euros, you begin to understand why Brexit is simply not on our radar anymore. Unfortunately, the British are a bit too involved to see this. ”
Others in Brussels believe that last week’s budget deal was a major step forward in EU confidence, showing that if the bloc can come together on something as controversial as money, it can do it on external threats like Russia, the rise of China, political instability in America and, of course, Brexit.
“I think this has proven that integration is alive and well, and that things could actually be easier without the British sitting around the table trying to block everything,” said an EU official. working on Brexit policy but not allowed to speak officially. “I think it also showed that the Franco-German partnership is really taking action. They can credibly say that through the mutualisation of the EU’s debt, they have advanced the integration project in the most significant way for years. I think there is now a growing realization that in light of the new cold war and America’s uncertainty, Europeans are safer working together. ”
The UK has previously said it wants Brexit negotiations to end by the fall. That doesn’t leave much time for a deal to be struck, and it’s unclear how much political capital Brussels will be willing to devote to getting the deal done.
“It is true that an agreement on the MFF and the recovery fund gives the EU27 [member states] more free space for Brexit, but they won’t let it dominate their time or their thinking, “says Georgina Wright, senior researcher in the Brexit team at the Institute for Government.” The EU is focusing on economic recovery, the role of Member States in EU decision-making, climate and the rule of law. Not in the UK. ”
It could annoy Brexiteers in London, who remain enraged at the EU’s demands for a trade deal and believe Johnson needs to play hard with Brussels. However, as the clock goes down into December, it could be riskier than they think.
“Some loud Brexiteers might want to scream that Brussels had better prepare for the UK to step down, but in reality it will hit the UK much harder than the EU,” says Menon. “The EU can better absorb the financial cost of no deal, which means it can afford to choose the union over Britain, if asked to make that choice. ”
Asked about Brexit after last week’s summit, several diplomats and EU officials told CNN of a lesser-rated deal on € 5 billion in reserve funds, in case no deal is reached. They strongly hinted that the sum was large enough to show that the EU was serious about not dealing with any deal, but small enough compared to the overall EU budget to indicate where Brexit falls in the EU’s priorities. Union.
With just over five months to go until the end of the transition period, and even less time to negotiate, whether Johnson decides to play hardball or not may not matter. “Although the EU much prefers a deal, it cannot be at any cost,” says Wright. “They want a fair and balanced deal, but one that generally protects the integrity of their market. An agreement that goes against this could be more costly politically for the EU than a result without a deal. ”
And those die-hard Brexiteers who advised Johnson to threaten to walk away might find that it’s actually Brussels that is really quietly prepared to put it all to sleep.