Former British Prime Minister Teresa May famously said in July 2016, “Brexit means Brexit” after the British voted in the referendum to leave the EU. Since that time, the U.K. and then the EU have been trying to work out how to construct the most famous divorce in recent history.
The U.K. must leave by December 31 and the on-again, off-again Brexit negotiations are almost at an end–despite the fact that no one yet knows if there is a deal or not.
There has been fighting talk on both sides, from French President Emmanuel Macron, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Both Macron and Johnson have a lot to lose
With the defeat of President Trump in the U.S., British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arguably needs the EU more than he wants–it is thought that Biden (who was anti-Brexit) is less likely to prioritize a U.S./U.K. trade deal, particularly when he is concerned about the implications of Brexit on northern Ireland and the peace deal.
And French President Emmanuel Macron has nothing to lose by pushing Britain hard. His polling numbers are down at home—he has come under attack for the way he has managed the Covid-19 pandemic. He is up for re-election next year, and he will lose votes if he is seen to concede too much ground on fishing rights. And as a keen pro-European, he is eager to see off any home-grown ideas of a ‘Frexit’ (a French exit from Europe) by showing how badly a country can fare on its departure from the EU.
Both sides have been blaming each other
The Daily Express, a pro-Brexit newspaper, argued that France cannot afford a no deal, particularly in terms of its agricultural exports–France has $1.4 billion annual surplus in trade with the U.K. (for example, France is the biggest supplier of apples to the U.K. as well as providing lots of French vegetables and cereals).
In return, President Macron has warned that Brexit would be terrible for the U.K. economy. He said that Britain would lose more in a no deal scenario than the EU, saying the right to fish in British waters was worth $890 million to EU fishermen, but access to European energy markets was worth up to $2.6 billion to Britain.
Despite several warnings that the talks should never go further than mid October, then late October—in mid November, the situation is moving into what was reported by Bloomberg to be labeled “move week”–where action is necessary in order to get any accord, ratified and implemented in time.
If not, the U.K. will have to return to quotas, tariffs and lengthy border controls for the first time since it joined the EC (European Communities, as it was then known) in 1973.
It’s all about fishing, sovereignty and a level playing field
On October 21, EU President Charles Michel told the European parliament that yes, “Brexit means Brexit,” and “we want a deal, but not at any cost.”
There is a stalemate around two main issues–that of access to fishing waters and a level playing field, how British and EU companies must follow the same rules and standards in bringing goods to market and who decides if those rules have been broken.
The British want to profit from their own coastal waters and to control them—“our laws, our trade and our waters,” as chief U.K. negotiator David Frost tweeted this week.
For the Europeans, it’s about sharing access to resources. As Michel said, “Yes, we want to keep access to U.K. waters for our fishermen, exactly like the U.K. wants to keep access to our huge and diversified markets for its companies.”
In addition, he added, “our U.K. friends… want access to our Single Market, while at the same time, being able to diverge from our standards and regulations, when it suits them.”
Both sides want the maximum and Michel’s words could be applied equally: “on ne peut pas avoir le beurre, l’argent du beurre, et le sourire de la cremiere. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
It’s still about the fish
Texts are being drafted, according to Les Echos, to meet in the middle on some of the issues. The British have been adamant that the EU Court of Justice cannot be responsible for legal decisions–which the EU has conceded–and it seems likely that a council of arbitration could be a solution for resolving disputes.
As regards state aid, the British have conceded and suggested that an independent authority could be created to control state aid, ensuring that companies who had access to open markets weren’t being bolstered by individual governments.
Fishing, however, seems to be the stumbling block. The EU–the one without the fish–is in a weaker position according to Les Echos but it wants to use access to the EU transport and energy market as contingent on still getting their boats into U.K. waters.
U.K. fishing waters are incredibly fertile and bring in the EU’s second largest catch each year—whilst it doesn’t account for much in economic terms, it is an incredibly emotive issue in coastal fishing areas and one of the reasons why the ‘no’ camp won the referendum. However, 64% of all U.K. fish is sold to the EU, so the U.K. would suffer if trading restrictions were put in place by the EU.
The British is saying that the EU needs to accept lower quotas. One idea would be to phase lower quotas in over time, so that the impact wouldn’t be quite so savage on either side.