Johnson Appeal for Brexit Help Frustrated by Summit Deadlock
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, adjusts his mask ahead of a dinner meeting in Brussels. (Photographer: Aaron Chown/PA Media/Bloomberg)

Johnson Appeal for Brexit Help Frustrated by Summit Deadlock

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s last-ditch plea for European Union leaders to step in and salvage the bloc’s faltering trade negotiations with the U.K. was frustrated when summit talks overran on Thursday night, pushing Brexit to the fringes.

The meeting of the EU’s 27 government chiefs in Brussels went through the night as they tussled over tough new climate targets. Leaders, including those crucial to the U.K. talks, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, were scheduled to be briefed on the EU’s future relationship with the U.K. over dinner but it ended up only happening for less that 10 minutes at 8:30 a.m., after a grueling night.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who met Johnson on Wednesday, told the summit that no deal was now the more likely option, according to two European officials. She told them that the main obstacles remain.

Johnson Appeal for Brexit Help Frustrated by Summit Deadlock

Leaders’ lack of focus on Brexit does little to help Johnson’s cause. Both sides have effectively pledged to call time on the negotiations by Sunday and while the two teams of negotiators are continuing meetings in Brussels, officials admitted they have little to talk about without fresh political direction.

Shortly after the summit talks got under way on Thursday afternoon, Johnson used a televised statement to warn that although he was still seeking a deal on a future trade and security relationship with the EU, failure was now a “strong possibility.” He also made a direct appeal to Macron and Merkel, the leaders of Europe’s biggest powers.

“I will go to Brussels, I will go to Paris, I will go to Berlin,” he said. “I will go wherever to try and get this home and get a deal.”

Since the negotiations started in March, leaders have largely remained disengaged, preferring to leave the work to the commission in Brussels and its chief negotiator Michel Barnier. But, as talks go to the wire, Johnson said it was now time for them to take action.

Failure to reach an agreement after nine months of negotiations would deliver a major blow to the British economy and disrupt supply chains for businesses in both the U.K. and the EU. Consumers would be hit by additional costs and disruption as tariffs and quotas are imposed on trade with the U.K.’s biggest and closest commercial partner.

The trade talks faltered on Wednesday night during the dinner between Johnson and von der Leyen, according to officials on both sides, went far worse than expected. In the days beforehand optimism had grown sufficiently to lead negotiators and diplomats to think that the pair might be able to unlock a final deal but their hopes were soon dashed.

The meeting took place in von der Leyen’s private apartment in the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, with a handful of officials from either side.

EU officials said that none of the new ideas Johnson brought to the table were workable for them and he brought up long-discarded proposals such as foreign policy coordination as he tried to extract concessions. For their part, the British side said they were stunned at how inflexible von der Leyen and her team were and how they refused to engage on suggestions for compromise.

The level of detail they discussed over dinner reveals how far the two sides are from a deal. While political chiefs usually only intervene in trade talks to give broad direction to their negotiators, Johnson and von der Leyen found themselves sparring over the fishing quotas for specific types of fish.

Afterward, von der Leyen tweeted that the two sides “remain far apart.” Statements issued by both sides said negotiators would resume their work and a final decision would come by the end of the weekend.

The talks have been stuck for months on disagreements over EU fishing rights in British waters and the so-called level playing field rules for fair competition for business.

Johnson argues that, for reasons of sovereignty, Britain must not be forced to follow the EU’s competition rules as they evolve in future years. The EU says the U.K. must keep up with its changing regulations to protect the integrity of the bloc’s single market.

As the end of Britain’s post-Brexit transition period on Dec. 31 looms ever larger, both sides are starting to think that those two positions may be irreconcilable, officials said on Thursday.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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