Britain sets sail – into the dark

The odds that the UK and the EU will reach full, or even much, agreement within the breakneck timetable imposed by London do not look good.

“There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail” – rhapsodising about the “great voyage” on which Britain is now embarked, Prime Minister Boris Johnson helped himself on Monday to a line from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” to evoke the excitement of the country’s new role in the world. A new role, it turns out, “championing global free trade now when global free trade needs a global champion”.

As an exposition of the British government’s approach to its upcoming “future partnership” negotiations with the European Union, this was a pretty weird speech. Who knew that Boris was so deeply, personally committed to free trade (or, indeed, anything else)? Who would have thought that the best way to advance it would be to pull Britain out of the world’s largest free trade bloc? And who could have guessed that promotion of free trade might not require a new free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, Canada-style, but could be perfectly well advanced by an arrangement “more like Australia’s” – which is to say, no FTA at all?

Despite these oddities, Johnson’s main message was clear enough: Britain needed no lessons from the EU on level playing field (LPF) issues such as state aid or environmental, labour, and social regulation; it was committed to maintain “the highest standards”, but as a sovereign nation; and, if that did not please the EU, then trade on WTO terms would suit Britain just fine.

Meanwhile, a written statement to Parliament set out the same stall more concisely and starkly. Contrary to the EU’s assumption, the future partnership should be embodied not in one overarching agreement but in a suite of agreements with their own governance and dispute settlement arrangements “appropriate to a relationship of sovereign equals”. Beyond trade, fisheries, and security, “future cooperation in other areas does not need to be managed through an international treaty, still less through shared institutions”. The United Kingdom would develop separate and independent policies on all standards issues: “the Government will not agree to measures in these areas which go beyond those typically included in a comprehensive free trade agreement”. The whole tenor of the document amounts to: “do not mistake us for the demandeurs in this negotiation – and do not believe that our universe is limited to orbiting the EU in a Brussels-centric system.”

Also meanwhile (3 February was an eventful day), the European Commission published its proposal for its own negotiating mandate. The 25 dense pages in effect summarise the structure, coverage, and key provisions of the single comprehensive partnership agreement the Commission envisages, after the pattern of almost all “comprehensive relationships between the Union and third countries”. (Only the EU’s relations with Switzerland involve a suite of separate agreements – a political and bureaucratic nightmare that the Commission is determined not to replicate.)

In detail, the draft contains a series of provisions at which the British will inevitably baulk: financial, police, and legal cooperation will be subject to EU decisions on the “adequacy” of British regulation and data protection systems; the fisheries agreement should “uphold Union fishing activities” (and is explicitly linked to the FTA); and Gibraltar should be left to one side. Almost four pages on LPF issues begin with the phrase “Given the Union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence” – so don’t imagine that Canada-style cut and paste will do here – before detailing just how the Commission envisages thwarting any UK attempt to secure an unfair competitive advantage. There are even several (particularly cheeky) references to ensuring that the UK’s own regulatory authorities – in areas ranging from competition policy to labour and social protections, to the environment – are “independent and adequately resourced”.

There is a fundamental lack of trust. The EU does not see Johnson’s word as a bankable asset

So, the two sides start kilometres, even miles, apart. But is this just pre-negotiation posturing? Downing Street sources reportedly hint that Johnson has deliberately presented himself as a “madman”; and both sides have major economic incentives to secure an FTA. Compromises will clearly be possible, given flexibility and goodwill: fish, after all, come down to a numbers game, while the LPF provisions in the EU/Canada deal at least demonstrate that this is not a binary oversight/no oversight issue – even if the EU sees them as inadequate for a UK deal.

Sadly, flexibility and goodwill seem in short supply – and the odds that the UK and the EU will reach full, or even much, agreement within the breakneck timetable imposed by London do not look good. Each side may overestimate the strength of its position: the Commission, reflecting on Britain’s shambolic negotiating performance over the last four years, may conclude that the country will again have to take dictation; the British side, reflecting on Johnson’s self-declared success on the Withdrawal Agreement last autumn, may conclude that the EU will fold at the eleventh hour.

Worse, there is a fundamental lack of trust. The EU does not see Johnson’s word as a bankable asset. And why would Brexiteers persistently argue that the whole point of Brexit is to diverge from EU regulation if they did not itch to do so, aiming to make the UK more “competitive”? On the British side, the EU’s insistence that it wants tougher LPF provisions than in its Canada deal looks like bad faith. “Boris Johnson team ‘infuriated’ as EU reneges on free trade deal” declares the Telegraph, preparing a stab-in-the-back narrative for the breakdown of negotiations that many Brexiteers would positively welcome.

So, the storm clouds are already gathering over the next stage of Brexit negotiations. “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail” may be all very thrilling; but Johnson omitted to complete Tennyson’s couplet – “There gloom the dark, broad seas”.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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