The Brexit trade deal is really getting closer

LONDON – In the neighboring country of the post-Brexit trade negotiations, where every deadline seems notional and the extensions are endless, there is still a feeling that the UK and the European Union are coming – really and truly – to the end of the road.

For the British and European parliaments to ratify a trade agreement in an orderly manner before the Brexit transition period expires on New Year’s Eve, analysts said, the two sides must agree by Sunday.

This does not mean that the United Kingdom and the European Union have failed to reach an agreement over the holidays, albeit in a more chaotic way. Not even to suggest that it could not go beyond December 31 without an agreement: theoretically it could reach an agreement in early 2021 and put them into operation after a few days of uncertainty.

But these scenarios would push the two sides into unexplored territory, which analysts said neither of them wants. Anticipating what this might look like, trucks loaded with freight lined up 20 miles on the highway to the port of Dover, waiting for ferries to mainland Europe.

The delays were partly caused by companies depositing goods if the UK and the European Union fail to reach an agreement. Like the ghost of Christmas that has yet to come, ties have served as a harbinger of even greater chaos that could break out if the two sides suddenly start imposing tariffs and other trade barriers.

Leaders resorted to prodigious language. “It’s time for the truth,” said European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier. “We have very little time left – just a few hours.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I have to say that things look difficult. There is a gap that needs to be filled. “

With most of the negotiations behind them, however, British and European Union officials seemed primarily to maneuver to gain a tactical advantage in how the agreement would be presented to their respective audiences. Living the talks a little longer would reduce the time that parliamentarians have to consider on the agreement.

This could be particularly important in the UK, where Mr Johnson will have to deal with an ardent pro-Brexit faction of his Conservative Party, which will be sensitive to any evidence that the government has closed in Brussels and diminished its commitment. to assert the sovereignty of Great Britain.

“It’s not really a matter of the transaction going through,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group. “Will pass. But the question is, how will it go? And how much aggravation will the prime minister cause? “

Mr Johnson is already under intense pressure to deal with the pandemic. The government has recently placed London and the south and east of the country at the highest level of restrictions. Officials have not ruled out imposing a third blockade nationwide if infections continue to spiral.

Although the British Parliament has paused, it could be called back to vote on an agreement.

In their closing days, Mr Rahman and other analysts said the negotiations appeared to be largely about fishing quotas. Mr Johnson would like to mark a victory in fishing rights to make up for the compromises that Britain has already made on the more arcane but far-reaching issues of state aid and competition policy.

“Coastal sovereignty is much easier to understand than the messy details of equality rules,” Mr Rahman said.

Under the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union in January, it has continued to comply with the bloc’s regulations for the past 11 months, while the two sides are trying to make permanent trade and other arrangements. If they do not agree, they will abide by the terms of the World Trade Organization, which economists have warned will have a lasting impact on the British economy.

Like fishing rights, truck lines are a tangible manifestation of these costs. Even in a cartel, there may be disruptions: many traders will, for the first time in decades, have to complete customs declaration forms and be subject to controls to ensure that British exports – especially food. – comply with the single market of the European Union. .

The UK acknowledges that it is not fully prepared. It intends to introduce the new system gradually over a period of six months, initially waving most of the trucks as they unload the ferries. But if French ports are blocked, the disruption will soon spread to the British side, leaving trucks blocked and motorways clogged.

For British traders, the uncertainty is particularly frustrating, as the most thorny issues have been largely resolved. The two parties, for example, agreed in principle on a dispute settlement mechanism on fair competition rules. The European Union feared that the UK would allow companies to adopt lower environmental and labor standards, undermining continental business.

The only pending issue, analysts said, is whether subsidies offered by the European Union – unlike its individual nations – should be considered state aid.

Negotiating a fisheries agreement, however, remains more evasive, as Britain’s neighbors, especially France, are struggling to maintain as much access as possible to the British waters that their fleets have fished for decades or even centuries.

Although the United Kingdom seems willing to accept the change in fishing rights over several years, the two sides remain separate for that period. They also disagree on how much of the current catch in British waters should be allowed for European Union vessels to maintain.

Although economically insignificant, fishing remains a politically charged issue on both sides of the English Channel, as it is of critical importance to many coastal communities. A confrontation could lead French fishing boats to block ports in protest or London to send Royal Navy patrol boats.

“Britain needs to be able to control its own laws,” Johnson said Friday during a visit to a training center in the northwestern city of Bolton. “It simply came to our notice then. We also need to be able to control our waters and fishing rights. Obviously, that’s what people voted for. “