The EU-UK Trade Talks: a Diplomatic Tightrope

After the prolonged and unceremonious staring contest between Britain and the European Union, it’s finally time for someone to blink. Indeed, even after all this time, extensive compromise will be the only way for the two parties to agree on the much sought-after trading agreement. The precariousness and vulnerability of this process, however, makes it a strong possibility that the public might start hearing WTO chatter surge once more in both Brussels and Westminster. As a result, this article will attempt to both flesh out the battle lines in the negotiations, as well as determine how close we find ourselves to a diplomatic precipice.

One of the primary demands put forward by the European Bloc is the much touted ‘level-playing field’. This would involve the EU granting British companies tariff free access to the mainland on the condition that the latter abide by certain key trade regulations and avoid undercutting member states.  The ‘level-playing field’ has been a major theme of the negotiations, but unsurprisingly, the UK has only really started showing their hand after successfully getting the withdrawal agreement through parliament. Said hand has been rather hostile to the EU, as the government’s strength in the House of Commons has given it little reason to worry about opposition at home. As a result, Johnson’s party has decisively toughened its line, claiming the country will not align its laws with those of the bloc, and suggesting an independent trading framework instead. This is a bold position to say the least, as Britain is effectively demanding all the perks of a free trade agreement whilst refusing to meet Europe halfway.  Make no mistake, the UK needs the EU more so than the EU needs the UK; if the bloc holds firm and calls Johnson’s bluff, it’s hard to believe the government won’t concede on some key regulations. In the unlikely event it doesn’t, this conflict of interest will likely directly precipitate the negotiations’ collapse.   

Another major point of contention is Britain’s stubborn refusal to consider extending the transition period past December 31st, 2020. On the one hand, the move is a political master stroke for Westminster. Indeed, their large majority in parliament enables them to play the game of brinkmanship with little opposition at home; and Europe knows this. As such, Johnson will likely keep stringing Europe along for as long as possible before even considering accommodating some of the EU’s demands. Should the bloc lose its nerve over this, they’ll likely buckle to Britain’s offers in order to avoid a no-deal exit. On the other hand, the EU is also aware that most conservative MPs won’t choose to ignore the prospect of a free trade agreement given the choice. In this sense, the European Bloc still has the home field advantage, which is furthered by the more cohesive stance on Brexit negotiations within the institution. Once again then, all the EU has to do, is wait.

It’s clear that trade talks are very much hanging by a thread. The EU is unlikely to soften its stance on the ‘level playing field’, as doing so risks jeopardising the integrity and stability of the customs union. At the same time, the UK itself will probably not abandon its hard-line position either, as the government’s overwhelming majority in parliament means that compromise at home is essentially unneeded. Given this, it’s expected that both sides will keep playing a prolonged game of diplomatic brinkmanship all the way until key deadlines in the negotiation process. These would include both Johnson’s threatened withdrawal date in June, as well as the end of the transitionary period in January. Both sides are likely to make considerable last-minute concessions in the lead-up to these. If not, expect a no-deal scenario to be back on the table.

Featured image by Furfur. Available on Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

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