It is hard to recall another negotiating process with as many ups and downs or as many make-or-break deadlines as Brexit. The next deadline, which in principle should conclude the divorce between Britain and the European Union, is Dec. 31. That is when a new trade agreement is supposed to be signed and sealed, clearing the way for Britain and the E.U. to finally start leading their separate lives. But for that to happen, a few knots have to be unraveled, and for that the deadline is Sunday.
As this week has demonstrated so far, meeting that Sunday deadline is far from certain.
After a meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Tuesday, at which they were supposed to unravel the remaining knots, reporters found more news in their dinner menu (scallops and turbot) than in their talks. When the meeting ended, both leaders told their sides to start preparing for no deal.
Mr. Johnson’s typically florid explanation was that the E.U. position was “kind of a bit like twins, and the U.K. is one and the E.U. is another, and if the E.U. decides to have a haircut, then the U.K. is going to have a haircut or else face punishment.” Ms. von der Leyen was more succinct: “We gained a clear understanding of each other’s positions. They remain far apart.” Once again, the knots were thrown back to negotiators with instructions to resolve them by the end of the weekend.
How negotiators can be expected to untangle them by Sunday when their political leaders failed is anybody’s guess. Once again there was talk of the dreaded specter of a “hard Brexit,” with trade between Britain and the Continent abruptly disrupted with lines of trucks backed up on both sides of the English Channel.
That possibility has been raised so often in the four-and-a-half-year Brexit saga that it hardly arouses the alarm it once did. But that makes it no less possible, or threatening. While Ms. von der Leyen and Mr. Johnson both said they were prepared to keep searching for solutions, both also issued orders to prepare for the worst.
The E.U. published a series of contingency measures on Thursday “to ensure that basic air and road connectivity are maintained in the increasingly likely event that a free-trade agreement is not reached,” Axios reported. Mr. Johnson said he had told his cabinet to start making preparations for “coming out on Australia terms,” his euphemism for what is more commonly known as a “cliff-edge Brexit.” He insisted that these are “very good terms and we can prosper mightily in that future which is just around the corner.”
His government and most credible economic forecasters have painted a far bleaker picture, of cuts to the British economy by as much as 9 percent. The governor of the Bank of England has warned that a no-deal break with Britain’s largest and closest trading partner would cause more long-term damage than the coronavirus. Exiting with a deal would also hurt the British economy, according to most predictions, but not as badly. That, presumably, is why Mr. Johnson is continuing to negotiate.
Britain formally withdrew from the European Union on Jan. 31, but left all E.U. rules in place until a new trade deal was ready, which was supposed to happen by year’s end. The three issues that continue to elude agreement are fishing rights, competition rules to ensure that the trading field is level on both sides (what Mr. Johnson was apparently referring to) and how trade disputes will be resolved.
Given the extraordinary number of rules and regulations that the negotiators have had to sort out to untangle Britain from the Union, these last — and especially fishing, which is a minuscule industry in Britain — would seem to be small details.
But to the British, as Mr. Johnson declared, they’re about sovereignty, and it was to recover a sovereignty purportedly ceded to Brussels that a narrow majority voted back in June 2016 to exit the E.U. and that Mr. Johnson was chosen prime minister. The requirement of a level playing field — basically common rules and standards that prevent businesses in one country from gaining a competitive advantage — is a way of keeping Britain locked in the E.U.’s “regulatory orbit,” Mr. Johnson said, while sharing fishing areas would mean Britain didn’t have controls over its own waters.
It is always possible that the two sides could agree to continue negotiating into the new year, at least on some aspects of a trade deal. Neither side wants a hard Brexit. But what these years of anguished debate and intense negotiations have made abundantly clear is that there is no way, and never was, for Britain to shed E.U. standards, rules and regulators while continuing to benefit from free trade across the Channel. There was always a steep price to pay, and Mr. Johnson has always known it.
Major disruptions in British-E.U. relations are inevitable with or without a deal, but however glowingly the prime minister speaks of an “Australia option,” an orderly separation is by far the better option for Britain and for the European Union. A “level playing field” in commerce is as much in Britain’s interest as in the E.U.’s. Clinging to full control over fishing waters makes little sense given the potential disruption of an established trade in which Britain imports 70 percent of the fish it devours and exports 80 percent of what it catches — quite possibly including the turbot that Ms. von der Leyen served Mr. Johnson.