Last Thursday, after the European Council took stock of the stalled negotiation between the EU and the UK to conclude an agreement in regard to their future relationship, the leaders invited the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to continue negotiations in the coming weeks and called on the UK “to make the necessary moves to make an agreement possible.” David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, expressed his surprise and disappointment that the EU apparently was no longer interested in working intensively to conclude an agreement as had been agreed with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on October 3—the word “intensively,” referring to the negotiations, was omitted, inadvertently as it turned out, from the final draft of their conclusions—and, more importantly, believed that, in order to get an agreement, “all future moves must come from the UK.” It was, he said, “an unusual approach to conducting a negotiation.” He said Prime Minister Boris Johnson would set out the UK’s reactions and approach the next day.
On Friday, Johnson said that, in light of the European Council’s conclusions, the UK would proceed on the assumption there will be no agreement with the EU that will take effect at midnight on December 31, when the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union. Referring to the EU’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, he said, “from the outset we were totally clear that we wanted nothing more complicated than a Canada-style relationship, based on friendship and free trade.” But, he said, “to judge by the latest EU summit in Brussels that won’t work for our EU partners. They want the continued ability to control our legislative freedom, our fisheries, in a way that is obviously unacceptable to an independent country. And since we have only ten weeks until the end of the transition period on January 1, I have to make a judgment about the likely outcome and to get us all ready. And given that they have refused to negotiate seriously for much of the last few months, and given that this summit appears explicitly to rule out a Canada-style deal, I have concluded that we should get ready for January 1 with arrangements that are more like Australia’s based on simple principles of global free trade.” He went on to say, “of course we are willing to discuss the practicalities with our friends where a lot of progress has already been made, by the way, on such issues as social security, and aviation, nuclear cooperation and so on. But for whatever reason it is clear from the summit that after 45 years of membership they are not willing—unless there is some fundamental change of approach—to offer this country the same terms as Canada. And so with high hearts and complete confidence we will prepare to embrace the alternative…as an independent free trading nation, controlling our own borders, our fisheries, and setting our own laws.”
That morning Frost spoke with Barnier, who after the European Council meeting had said he had proposed that the negotiation continue in London this week and in Brussels next week. Frost told him that, since there was no new basis for discussion, he shouldn’t come to London on Monday. They agreed to talk again in a few days. Johnson’s spokesman said, “There is only any point in Michel Barnier coming to London next week if he’s prepared to address all the issues on the basis of a legal text in an accelerated way, without the UK required to make all the moves….If not, there’s no point in coming. Trade talks are over. The EU have effectively ended them by saying they do not want to change their negotiating position. There was accordingly no basis for negotiations in London as of Monday. Those four words—“Trade talks are over”—appeared in large fonts on page one of many British and European newspapers. But as it turns out, the talks in fact weren’t over. After a series of conversations between Frost and Barnier earlier this week and, most importantly, Barnier’s speech to the European Parliament yesterday, the talks resumed this afternoon in London.
Barnier and Frost spoke again on Monday. Afterwards, Barnier tweeted, “I just spoke to @DavidGHFrost. As stated by President @vonderleyen on Friday, I confirmed that the EU remains available to intensify talks in London this week, on all subjects, and based on legal texts. We now wait for the UK’s reaction.” Frost for his part tweeted, “Constructive discussion with @MichelBarnier today. Noted his proposal to intensify work, as we have been asking. But the EU still needs to make a fundamental change in approach to the talks and make clear it has done so. We will stay in close touch.” They spoke again on Tuesday, and afterwards Barnier tweeted, “I spoke again to @DavidGHFrost today. My message: we should be making the most out of the little time left. Our door remains open.” Johnson’s spokesman said, “Lord Frost and Michel Barnier had a constructive discussion. The situation remained as yesterday, and they will remain in contact.”
Yesterday, Barnier spoke to the European Parliament about the negotiation of the future partnership with the UK and, in doing so, sent an unambiguous message to the UK that the EU respects its sovereignty and that any agreement will require compromise by both sides. He told the MEPs the European Council “reaffirmed to our British partners and friends that, as we have always said, the EU wants an agreement that is to the mutual benefit of each party, that respects the autonomy and sovereignty of each party and that reflects a balanced compromise….We will seek the compromises that are needed from both sides to reach an agreement up to the last possible day….And as we stressed after the European Council, we are prepared to intensify discussions on all the issues and to do this on the basis of legal texts.” Continuing, he said, “Something else that will not change is the framework we have set on behalf of the EU for our ambitious partnership with the UK. This means respecting our decision-making autonomy, the integrity of our internal market and the preservation of our long-term economic and political interests. These principles were set out by the Union from the moment when the UK made its sovereign choice to leave the EU more than four years ago. And these principles are of course compatible with respect for British sovereignty, which is a legitimate concern of Boris Johnson’s government. What is at stake today in these negotiations is not the sovereignty of one side or the other. We have made it clear since the Political Declaration that any future agreement will respect the decision-making autonomy of the EU and the sovereignty of the UK. What is at stake is the smooth organization of our future relations.…We have understood the red lines set out by Boris Johnson: on the role of the European Court of Justice; on the UK’s legislative autonomy; on fisheries. For nearly four months we have been working at the negotiating table to see how these red lines could be reconciled with our own principles and interests and with the desire to reach common agreement.”
After his speech, Barnier tweeted, “Our principles respect UK sovereignty. An agreement is possible if we are both ready to work constructively & in a spirit of compromise over the next days, on the basis of legal texts. Time is short.” Johnson’s spokesman said, “We note with interest that the EU’s negotiator, speaking to the European Parliament this morning, has commented in a significant way on the issues behind the current difficulties in our talks. We are studying carefully what was said. David Frost will discuss the situation when he speaks to Michel Barnier later today.”
Several hours later, the UK government issued a statement in which it said it heard in Barnier’s speech the “fundamental change in approach” it required in order to continue the negotiation: “We have studied carefully the statement by Michel Barnier to the European Parliament this morning. As the EU’s Chief Negotiator his words are authoritative. The Prime Minister and Michael Gove [the Cabinet Office minister and co-chair of the Joint Committee overseeing the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement] have both made clear in recent days that a fundamental change in approach was needed from the EU from that shown in recent weeks. They made clear that the EU had to be serious about talking intensively, on all issues, and bringing the negotiation to a conclusion. They were also clear that the EU had to accept once again that it was dealing with an independent and sovereign country and that any agreement would need to be consistent with that status. We welcome the fact that Mr Barnier acknowledged both points this morning, and additionally that movement would be needed from both sides in the talks if agreement was to be reached. As he made clear, ‘any future agreement will be made in respect of the decision-making autonomy of the European Union and with respect for British sovereignty.’ Lord Frost discussed the implications of this statement and the state of play with Mr Barnier earlier today. On the basis of that conversation we are ready to welcome the EU team to London to resume negotiations later this week. We have jointly agreed a set of principles for handling this intensified phase of talks.”
As to the substance of the negotiation, the UK noted Barnier had “set out the principles that the EU has brought to this negotiation, and…also acknowledged the UK’s established red lines. It is clear that significant gaps remain between our positions in the most difficult areas, but we are ready, with the EU, to see if it is possible to bridge them in intensive talks. For our part, we remain clear that the best and most established means of regulating the relationship between two sovereign and autonomous parties is one based on a free trade agreement.” But ending on a cautionary note, it said, “As both sides have made clear, it takes two to reach an agreement. It is entirely possible that negotiations will not succeed….It is essential now that UK businesses, hauliers, and travellers prepare actively for the end of the transition period, since change is coming, whether an agreement is reached or not.”
Subsequently, Frost tweeted, “We have agreed that a basis for negotiations with the EU & @MichelBarnier has been re-established. Intensive talks will happen every day & begin tomorrow afternoon, 22 October, in London. Here is the UK statement & link to the agreed working methodology….” In regard to the organizing principles for further negotiations, he and Barnier agreed the negotiations would be intensified, talks would be conducted across all of the issue-focused negotiating tables concurrently, and they would be conducted on a daily basis including weekends, unless both sides agree otherwise. They also agreed the next and final phase of the negotiations will in principle be on the basis of each side’s legal texts while a common approach is found, unless lead negotiators in a specific area agree that a different approach is more appropriate. They agreed that that lead negotiators in each area will move as quickly as possible to a read-through of both texts, with a view to identifying areas of convergence. They agreed to establish a small joint secretariat to hold a master consolidated text and manage the legal texts in the various issue-areas. The textual process will be accompanied, they agreed, by discussions in the separate issue-areas of the outstanding, more political, issues, including the most difficult ones pertaining to the ‘level playing field,’ governance, fisheries, energy and goods/services provisions. They agreed the chief and/or deputy chief negotiators will meet in a restricted format as needed to consider the overall progress of the negotiations and particular issues arising from the negotiation tables. And they agreed the initial phase will take place in London from today until Sunday and thereafter in London and Brussels either in person or via teleconference.
Did what Barnier said in his speech yesterday in fact constitute the “fundamental change in approach” the UK demanded? Of course not; he simply reiterated what the EU has always understood about this negotiation—that it will require compromise on both sides and respect for British sovereignty. But after the careless and provocative language in the European Council’s conclusions last week, the references to “a balanced compromise,” “the compromises that are needed from both sides,” and “respect for British sovereignty” allowed the UK to claim it’s tough line last Friday had forced the EU to change its approach. And so today Barnier returned to London and the negotiation continues.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and director of the European Union Studies Program at the MacMillan Center.