With Brexit Trade Talks at an Impasse, Boris Johnson Finally Engages

BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, in his first direct talks with Brussels about Brexit since his country left the European Union at the end of January, agreed with European leaders on Monday to push ahead with intensified talks in July and August to try to reach a trade deal by the end of the year.

Mr. Johnson’s remarks came in a videoconference with the union’s three presidents — Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission, Charles Michel of the European Council and David Sassoli of the European Parliament.

In a brief joint statement after the videoconference, the two sides praised their negotiators but “agreed nevertheless that new momentum was required.”

With negotiations at an impasse, both sides agreed to “intensify the talks” this summer, with the aim of “concluding and ratifying a deal before the end of 2020,” the statement said, including, “if possible, finding an early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement.’’

Speaking later in London, Mr. Johnson said, “I don’t think we’re actually that far apart, but what we need now is to see a bit of oomph in the negotiations.”

“The faster we can do this, the better, and we see no reason why you shouldn’t get this done in July,” Mr. Johnson added. “I certainly don’t want to see it going on until the autumn, winter, as I think perhaps in Brussels they would like. I don’t see any point in that, so let’s get it done.”

Britain has legally left the European Union, but both sides agreed on a transition period until at least the end of this year, so nothing has fundamentally changed. The idea was to give time for both sides to negotiate their future relationship, with the possibility of an extension to the talks. But Mr. Johnson, eager to fulfill his Brexit promises and to stop paying into the European Union budget, has ruled out any extension.

With both sides concentrating on how to manage the coronavirus pandemic, talks so far have been slow to progress. Heightened and even angry rhetoric from the chief negotiators — David Frost for London and Michel Barnier for Brussels — has contrasted to what officials on both sides describe as polite and professional staff-level talks involving as many as 150 people on each side.

Mr. Barnier said last week that there had been “no significant areas of progress” at the last negotiating round. Mr. Frost said that progress “remains limited,” with negotiators “reaching the limits” of what could be achieved in formal talks.

Without key political decisions, the talks after four rounds were faltering. Mr. Johnson and Ms. von der Leyen have agreed on an accelerated series of negotiations to run through July and part of August. Both sides say that any agreement must be made before the end of October, to allow the British and all the European parliaments to ratify the deal and for both sides to prepare.

But that is not much time, and some believe that faced with the prospect of no deal, some form of modest extension could be arranged if the two sides were close to an agreement.

The two sides have adopted a posture of being open to an outcome with no deal, rather than to make too many concessions. Both want an agreement though, because the economic disruption of a brutal break would be significant.

Given comparable size and the flow of goods, it would probably be worse for Britain, which sends more than 40 percent of its exports to the European Union and gets more than 50 percent of its imports from the bloc. But the pain would be felt on the continent as well.

The remaining roadblocks to a deal are significant, both political and economic. Europe wants a comprehensive agreement, as suggested in the nonbinding political declaration both sides signed as part of the withdrawal agreement. Britain, especially with time so short, wants a more modest free trade agreement, with side deals to handle issues like fishing, which has a larger political than economic importance for both sides.

There is a fundamental disagreement on “governance,” with Europe regarding the European Court of Justice as its ultimate authority and Britain saying that its Parliament and courts must remain supreme. So how future disagreements would be adjudicated or arbitrated remains a serious area for dispute.

Brussels and Mr. Barnier insist on preserving the coherence and integrity of the European Union’s single market. To ensure that, they want an agreement on what has been called a “level playing field,” to prevent Britain from loosening its regulations and lowering its taxes to make European goods less competitive.

British officials say that their regulations are now the same or even tougher than those of Brussels, so its good intentions should be assurance enough. In any case, they add, any of its goods entering the European market must meet European standards.

Britain would like access with “zero quotas and zero tariffs.” But that, Brussels says, would require a legally binding agreement to keep to the regulations of the single market — the “level playing field.”

But in a February document outlining Britain’s red lines, the government said that, “we will not agree to any obligations for our laws to be aligned with the E.U.’s.” Instead, Mr. Johnson proposed some kind of “independent” monitoring system, perhaps arbitration.

Brussels also wants commitments on state aid and subsidies to British companies, so that they do not undercut European ones.

Brussels says that without a deal on fishing and on competition rules, there can be no deal at all.

On the one hand, the British complain, the Europeans say that Britain is a smaller economy and needs to be realistic, and on the other, that Britain is a serious economic threat. By that logic, Europe would have difficulty with any relatively large economy close to its borders.

And it is absurd, the British say, for an independent country to promise to mirror Brussels rules forever, or to pretend that fishing quotas should not change over time, given that fish move and fish stocks change.

But the Europeans complain that Britain wants to cherry pick bits of previous trade deals with countries that are not comparable, like South Korea or Canada, given their geographical separation.

Stefaan De Rynck, a senior adviser to Mr. Barnier, said last month that “the U.K. will always be special to us,” but it is also right next door, and proximity matters in trade. “Every deal is custom-made,” he said. “The U.K. can’t say I want a little bit of South Korea, a little of Mexico, Canada and Japan on the side.”

Brussels also complains that Mr. Johnson is backtracking on the existing agreement governing the island of Ireland to ensure that the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — now the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union — remains as open as it is now. While the deal allows European officials to be present during checks at Northern Irish ports and airports, Britain has objected to those officials keeping an office in Belfast.

Neither side is really ready for what will be in the end “a hard Brexit,” let alone a “no-deal Brexit,” said Fabian Zuleeg, head of the European Policy Center, a think tank in Brussels. As an indication that Britain wants to avoid too much disruption, the government announced last week that full border controls on goods entering from the European Union would not apply until at least July 2021.

That approach will allow most importers of “standard goods” up to six months to complete customs declarations and to pay tariffs, if any apply. The announcement was praised by British trade associations, because it would reduce the expected backlog at British ports.

The European Union, however, has said that in the case of a no deal, it would apply complete customs and tariff controls from Jan. 1 of next year. That would most likely mean extended delays on the European side.

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