Johnson Heads Into Brussels Showdown Over Brexit Trade Deal
Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minster, left, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission in London. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Johnson Heads Into Brussels Showdown Over Brexit Trade Deal

Boris Johnson travels to Brussels for dinner with Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday as both sides seek to save Brexit trade negotiations.

European leaders are lining up in support of the European Union Commission president while back in London, the U.K. prime minister offered an olive branch by agreeing on a detailed deal on Northern Ireland even as many of the old sticking points remain.

Johnson Heads Into Brussels Showdown Over Brexit Trade Deal

Time is running out. If a trade deal isn’t struck by the end of year the U.K. faces tariffs on exports to the bloc among many other damaging disruptions.

The stakes could not be higher. The EU is determined to hold a united front and prevent Johnson from getting face time with other national leaders. For the U.K., it’s a question of principle and showing that the unprecedented step of quitting the EU was worthwhile after years of angst.

“You’ve got to be optimistic, you’ve got to believe there’s the power of sweet reason to get this thing over the line,” Johnson said. “But I’ve got to tell you it’s looking very, very difficult at the moment.”

The U.K. believes that if some progress can be made at a political level, it could allow chief negotiator David Frost and his team to resume negotiations in the coming days. One U.K. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, spelled out that some political impetus is now needed.

What to Expect

The EU’s leadership comes prepared. Von der Leyen conferred with Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron to come up with a strategy of containment before inviting the British premier to the EU capital.

EU leaders have seen in the past how Johnson can deploy his charisma to bend the political agenda and they decided that he won’t get to bypass the commission and stitch together a deal with either the German or French leaders directly, officials said.

Charles Michel, president of the EU leaders’ council, was in a call with von der Leyen, Merkel and Macron where they agreed that Brexit negotiations should not make it onto a packed summit agenda, according to two officials familiar with that discussion.

Johnson Heads Into Brussels Showdown Over Brexit Trade Deal

Johnson’s government has made overtures, even as it waits on what kind of concessions the EU is willing to make over the same three issues that have dogged negotiations from the start: fisheries, a competitive playing field for standards and subsidies and how any agreement might be enforced.

On Tuesday, the U.K. dropped controversial parts of its Internal Market Bill that would have given it the power to unilaterally override the Brexit divorce treaty, particularly in relation to the Irish border.

The legislation’s contentious clauses had soured the talks and led EU leaders to question whether they could trust the U.K. Its removal lightens the mood but there is still a lot of brinkmanship at play with both sides pushing the limits of what a real deadline is.

“Having spoken to British government this evening, I believe they do want to find a way to get a deal,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told broadcaster RTE. He said that Wednesday’s meeting will be “pivotal.”

What Deadline?

Earlier Johnson had been gloomy about the prospects of reaching an agreement with the EU in time for the end of the Brexit transition period on Dec. 31, but said he still hoped it would be possible to achieve an accord.

“The situation at the moment is very tricky,” he told reporters in a pooled television clip. “There are just limits beyond which, obviously, no sensible independent government or country could go.”

The risk for the EU is that if Johnson doesn’t get anything out of the trip, he will walk away from talks and the prospect of the U.K. leaving the EU single market and the customs union -- a serious economic hit for both sides -- will start to become real.

“It’s coming down to a political call to see if both sides are willing to make the compromises necessary,” Irish Deputy Prime MinisterLeo Varadkar told reporters in Dublin. “We’ll see in next couple of days” if a deal can be done, he added.

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