The logo and motto ("Together. For Europe's recovery") of the German presidency of the EU Council is projected on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 30, 2020. Germany will hold the rotating presidency of the EU Council for 6 months. Image Credit: AFP

For the first time in four months, two teams of negotiators sat face-to-face in Brussels to hash out the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. They might not as well have bothered given that the talks broke off prematurely.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator perhaps best summed it all up: “After four days of discussions, serious divergences remain”.

Let’s face it — with less than six months left before the UK goes its own way free from Brussels’ sphere of influence, it looks as if this set of Brexit talks will go down to the wire. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants a deal in place by the end of September, the EU would like to see one by then too but there’s little chance that it’s going to happen anytime soon, even more so after the premature end on Thursday to those talks.

Officials in both Brussels and London tried to downplay the early end. They noted that the talks weren’t billed as a full round of negotiations and trotted out descriptives like “a useful exchange of information”. But given that Barnier and the UK chief deal maker David Frost were supposed to meet on Friday in the same room and that too was called off, it’s hard to turn lemons into lemonade no matter what way officials try to spin it.

And spin it they did.

We need to let go of the idea that it is for us to define what Britain should want. That is for Britain to define — and we, the EU27, will respond appropriately.

- Angela Merkel, German chancellor

“The negotiations have been comprehensive and useful,” Frost said in a statement. “But they have also underlined the significant differences that still remain between us on a number of important issues.”

Barnier said the bloc continued to believe an agreement was possible and in everyone’s interest, but its major demands for an economic partnership were unchanged.

“After four days of discussions, serious divergences remain,” he said in a statement. “The EU expects, in turn, its positions to be better understood and respected in order to reach an agreement. We need an equivalent engagement by the United Kingdom.”

No-deal Brexit nightmare

Things are not looking good — and unless something gives sometime soon, that nightmare of no-deal Brexit scenario will be back on the cards come January 1.

With no deal in place, World Trade Organisation tariffs immediately apply, making for a not-so-happy New Year’s Day for any company or corporation doing business between the UK and the EU. The lockdown from the coronavirus has just resulted in the worst economic downturn in Britain for more than 300 years, unemployment levels are predicted to remain at 1980s level in the UK for the next five years, and house prices on the island have fallen for the first time since 2012. What perfect timing then to send another economic shock wave through Britain’s manufacturing, trading and financial sectors. The Bank of England is predicting a ‘V’-shaped recovery from Covid-19 now — come next spring, it might very well be turning that into a ‘W’.

As far as Brussels is concerned, Britain thinks it can maintain all of the flexibility and trading benefits it enjoyed being a member of the trading bloc that makes up the world’s third-biggest market. As much as possible, it believes London must maintain EU standards of everything from labour practices, the environment to transport and trading. The last thing Brussels needs is an island state offshore undermining and undercutting the EU, its marketplace of some 500 million and the products it makes and shares across the 27 member states.

And as far as London is concerned, Brussels simply isn’t showing enough flexibility to give the fully independent nation relatively unfettered access to the European market as one might expect from a close neighbour.

What happens in transition period

With Germany taking the rotating chair of the EU Council for the next crucial six months, Chancellor Angela Merkel spelt out in very clear terms earlier this week that the UK “will have to live with the consequences” of deciding to go its own way, and will either have to accept labour and other EU standards.

“We need to let go of the idea that it is for us to define what Britain should want,” Merkel said. “That is for Britain to define — and we, the EU27, will respond appropriately.”

She reinforced that hardline stance in the Bundestag on Wednesday, warning that time was running out to reach a deal and ratify it before the December 31 deadline. There’s a growing sense in all of 27 EU capitals that they should prepare for a hard Brexit with no deal at the year’s end. Merkel wants to EU to concentrate on organising its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, with enough time and energy being spent already haggling over Britain’s Brexit in recent years.

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The face-to-face talks between 16 officials from each side made little or no progress on the key issues of maintaining the level playing field, fisheries, police and judicial cooperation, and the so-called “governance” issue — how disputes will be resolved down the road when the UK is full out of the transition period.

Is it any wonder then that officials in London this week rolled out how the new trading regimen and customs declarations will work between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland across the Irish Sea — a special arrangement the UK gave way on to prevent a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. They better dust off those old WTO tariff manuals while they’re at it too.