They will talk about the obvious things – the EU budget, foreign affairs, the coronavirus – but a little time will be spent on something they haven’t discussed in a while … Brexit.
Discussions over a Brexit trade deal may have taken place in the background, but it has been several months since this group of leaders, known as the European Council, had a formal discussion of what might look like. a Brexit deal.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, when they last met, Brexit received the most fleeting of mentions. Here, at least, it is provided for a real full discussion.
What they will get is an update on the negotiations and an assessment by chief negotiator Michel Barnier of the likelihood of a deal. What we won’t get here is a deal itself.
This means Boris Johnson’s October 15 deadline will pass without a Brexit deal being signed. In the ranks of European diplomats in Brussels, no one will be surprised by this. They have always viewed this deadline as a weightless British candy store, and for weeks negotiations have been expected to continue until the end of October and possibly November.
Leaders already know the problem – familiar sticking points for a Brexit deal are governance, fisheries and so-called ‘level playing field’ provisions around regulations such as state aid.
Solving these issues requires more discussion in London and Brussels, as well as political will and compromise. Both sides still believe that a deal is possible but, at the same time, both see no deal as a possibility.
It’s easy to say we’ve been here before, but there is a profound difference between the high-stakes Brexit negotiations we had 12 months ago and those taking place today.
In 2019, Brexit was the big political game in town – the big beasts of European politics were judged by how they handled it.
Now, since the shattering impact of COVID-19, the political dynamic has fundamentally changed.
You won’t find many Italian voters putting Brexit at the top of their worries, or French voters who think Emmanuel Macron’s most important job is to settle Brexit (with the exception of French fishermen, who might still push Mr Macron to veto a deal they don’t like).
So, while there is no doubt that the EU wants a deal with a nation that sits so close to the borders of Europe, the mantra I have heard time and time again is’ not at any cost. “. Yes, I think they are ready to compromise, but only if they see Mr Johnson compromise as well.
So what will come out of this advice? Not a conclusion, but just a statement, I hope. Something to do with the need to intensify the discussions and push harder for a deal. And maybe a sense of urgency. No one really expects Mr Johnson to drop the talks at this point, but they all know time is running out.
Can an agreement still be reached? I think the answer is yes. A Brexit deal is probably, fair, more likely than no deal.
But can we take it for granted that Europe and the UK will eventually find common ground? No, I don’t think we can.
The two sides began to prepare for the lack of agreement; politics is unstable.
With so many other distractions around the world, reaching a Brexit deal won’t be easy.