No, Brussels is not misreading the UK’s threats of no deal

Contrary to recent reports, the European Union knows Britain could walk away and is preparing accordingly

August 25, 2020
EU Chief negotiatior Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
EU Chief negotiatior Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

I’ll let you in on a well-known secret: the EU is a formidable negotiator. It does not always get what it wants but it has got rather good at negotiating with third countries. Take trade deals: it has more trade agreements than any other country or group of countries—and at the last count, it had a dozen negotiations on the go. It also has a process that reflects years of fine tuning, which it applies to each negotiation in much the same way: appoint the right team, keep member states and the EU Parliament in the loop, know who you are negotiating with and crucially, prepare for all eventualities.

Talks with the UK are no different. Recently, there have been reports in the UK media that the EU does not think Downing Street would really be ready to walk away with no trade deal, especially in the middle of a pandemic. This is misreading the situation; while Brussels is cautiously optimistic about reaching a deal, it knows that might not happen, and that a breakdown was always possible because of the limited time available for negotiations. This is why it has been meticulously planning for multiple scenarios, including a no-deal outcome.

The EU knows this is a complex negotiation. There are still real points of disagreement over the need for a level playing field, fishing quotas and access for EU vessels to British waters. UK and EU negotiators are working tirelessly (having upped the number of negotiating rounds over the summer) but neither side wants to give in too quickly. So much so that a breakthrough may only be possible with political intervention later in the Autumn.

But the negotiations are only part of the challenge. EU lawyers will also need time to go through the 400-plus pages of agreement (known in the EU jargon as “legal scrubbing”). The European Parliament will need time to debate and scrutinise the deal before MEPs vote on it. Businesses will also need time to prepare—getting the necessary paperwork ready to continue trading and making sure road hauliers have the right permits, insurance and driving licenses. The challenge is even greater for certain sectors under a no-deal scenario.

The EU is under no illusion: there are many things that could go wrong, which is why the Commission continues to liaise closely with member states, the EU Parliament and business associations over their no-deal preparation.

Over the past few weeks, representatives from the UK food and agriculture sector to professional services operating in the EU, have warned that they would struggle to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19 and a no-deal outcome. But ultimately, Brussels is negotiating with the UK government. It knows that No 10 could decide that no deal is a better option than a deal that leaves it too bound up with the EU. Brussels takes what the UK government says seriously. And that’s because the EU also has its own interests it is looking to protect: there is no way member states would agree to a deal that risked giving British businesses a high degree of access to the single market, with none of the same obligations. Neither side takes threats to walk away lightly.

Ultimately, only those at the heart of the negotiations know what is really going on. And for now, both sides have repeated that they remain committed to reaching an agreement. What matters is the negotiation process itself—and if Article 50 talks are anything to go by, one day can look radically different from the next. The next few weeks will be crucial, and it may be that we will only really know what happens late in October.

Preparing for a no deal is not a matter of tempting fate; it is a sensible course of action. Brexit is back on the agenda and it is far too soon for the EU to call the UK’s bluff. All options are still wide open. It will be an interesting Autumn.