Why Saturday’s high-level Brexit video call matters

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Katya Adler
Editor Europe

@BBCkatyaadleron Twitter

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  • Brexi

image copyrightGetty Images

legendThe two leaders are expected to speak on a video call to ‘take stock’ of post-Brexit trade talks

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It is significant.

The announcement that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will speak to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday cannot be dismissed as more blah blah in the Brexit process.
“Wake me up when it’s over: trade deal, or no trade deal,” I often hear people complaining that the problem is “dragging on too long.”
The point is, it really matters. In the UK and in the EU, lives and livelihoods will be affected by the outcome of these negotiations.

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The acceptance of the Brexit divorce deal last year has mostly given, but not complete, peace of mind to the several million EU citizens and their families living in the UK, as well as to ‘British citizens and their families living in the EU after Brexit.

It has given a sense of security – but not as much as expected, as recent events have shown – to Northern Ireland, sandwiched between the post-Brexit UK and Ireland, a member of the Single Market of the EU and which is home to a still fragile peace process.
The trade and security deal, which has been negotiated for months now, is also what both sides say they want.
Not at any cost, they insist. But governments on both sides of the Channel believe governments on both sides of the Channel should aim for a zero-tariff, quota-free trade deal, as well as police, judicial and other cooperation between neighbors.

And we can be almost there

Speculation is rife, of course, as to why Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen suddenly scheduled their digital tête-à-tête.
In general, this is interpreted as a positive sign.
On Friday, the President of the European Commission said that she and the Prime Minister would “take stock” of the negotiations, time is running out to reach an agreement. She called for an intensification of negotiations.
She said the more difficult questions were still “wide open”. And she mentioned state aid and a level playing field in particular – on which the EU is asking the UK to enter into competition regulations in order to have zero-tariff, quota-free access to the market. unique.
No surprise there. And that helps explain the video call for leaders of tomorrow.
The accepted wisdom has always been that bargaining teams can only make limited progress. And that the final push – the politically difficult decisions about how much to compromise on the final sticking points – should come from above.
In terms of optics too, Boris Johnson in particular perhaps, but also Ursula von der Leyen, will want to be seen as being at the center of decision-making and finally declare an agreement or a result without an agreement.

What will they talk about?

There have been positive rumors coming out of the UK for about a week, suggesting solutions are approaching on key issues such as state aid – the extent to which governments support businesses or promote certain industries at home .
This has not yet been confirmed by the EU.
Boris Johnson et Ursula von der Leyenimage copyrightReuters
legendTalks could be key for both sides to reach compromises
It is possible that the Prime Minister and Ms von der Leyen will discuss on Saturday to determine who is really willing to make which compromises on the last remaining issues.
Does the UK really want a deal knowing that key concessions must be made, EU diplomats still often wonder aloud.
Will the EU (finally) accept that the UK is now an independent country and that it cannot and will not commit to following EU rules after Brexit – for example on the fishing regulations and competition, ask members of the government and the Conservative Party.
If the answer to both questions is broadly yes, then there is speculation that we might get an announcement that negotiators will now enter a media ban “tunnel”, known in European circles as “under”. -marine ”. This would allow negotiators to focus, uninterrupted or influenced by media criticism or political commentary.

Can we find compromises?

On Friday, the President of the European Commission rejected the word “tunnel”. The word, but not the concept.
But the EU has long insisted that there will be no tunnel under that or any other name unless a “landing zone” – that is, positions of compromise – be visible from the start.
We are clearly not there yet on the more difficult questions.
Compromises aren’t just politically tricky for Boris Johnson.
He risks being accused in the media and by some members of his own party of “betraying Brexit” if concessions are made. But fishing rights and the regulation of competition are also politically sensitive issues for many EU members.
As far as competition is concerned, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists on “the integrity of the single market”. She has made it clear that she wants the EU to protect its interests and make them – and not a trade deal with the UK – the number one priority.
It should be noted that the EU’s chief negotiator is now planning to travel to Berlin on Monday to see Merkel.
If the EU accepts (as it arguably will have to, if a deal is to be reached) that the UK will not subscribe to EU rules on labor, environment and state aid – the so-called level playing field provisions – so diplomats say they will look to the UK instead to agree to “guiding principles” on these issues.
Plus a robust mechanism to deal with disputes quickly and efficiently if they arise between the two parties.

How will France react?

Regarding fishing, French President Emmanuel Macron is under pressure to abandon his maximalist approach. He does not want.
Fishing is not at all a stretch of the imagination a big contributor to the GDP in France, but, like in the United Kingdom, it is a totemic problem.
Mr. Macron is aware of the upcoming presidential election in France. This makes him hesitate to give ammunition to political opponents to say that he has abandoned French interests.

media legendEC President Ursula von der Leyen said the bill violated previous UK commitments
And then there’s the explosive issue of the UK government’s Home Market Bill – part of which rescinds last year’s EU-UK deal on Northern Ireland.
The EU has taken legal action against the UK in this regard.
And the European Parliament says that even if a trade deal is soon to be concluded, it will not ratify it unless the government rewrites the bill.
But the government insists it will not change the text. He says the bill provides a safety net to ensure the integrity of the UK single market.
Boris Johnsonimage copyrightEPA / JESSICA TAYLOR / PARLIAMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
legendBoris Johnson struck a deal with Tory MPs to amend the bill earlier this month.
Brussels is hoping that reaching a zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal – easing (but not without friction!) The post-Brexit trade flow between the UK and the EU – will allay government fears about the North Ireland.
The EU is crossing its fingers, which will render the contentious parts of the draft law on the internal market obsolete, thus resolving the conflict.

Deal but not at any price

But, again, we’re not there yet.
For now, the why and what of Saturday’s talks are pure speculation.
The only thing we know for sure: UK and EU say they want a deal – but not at any cost.
Yet if and when an agreement does emerge, both sides will have had to compromise.
Of course, they will of course aim to sell the deal to their home audiences as a win.
Or, at least, as the best possible outcome given all of the circumstances, whether it’s the red lines on either side, the impact of Covid-19, and almost inevitably – given the public mood of these negotiations – a dose of cross-Channel finger. -indicate, treat or disagree.

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