UK and EU negotiators on cusp of trade deal – but Brexit will drag on for years

James Crisp
·3-min read
EU and UK negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost at start of the first round of post -Brexit trade deal talks - BRITAIN-EU/PARLIAMENT 
EU and UK negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost at start of the first round of post -Brexit trade deal talks - BRITAIN-EU/PARLIAMENT

This article was originally published in our subscriber-only Brexit Bulletin newsletter. You can sign up to receive this here.

British and EU negotiators may be on the cusp of a trade deal – but Brexit never ends.

Talks with Brussels have been dragging on for years. They will be a regular part of British life, continuing long into the future after the trade agreement is struck.

Britain has escaped the EU but it can never escape negotiating with it. Even a no-deal Brexit wouldn’t prevent the unavoidable future of talks with the EU, and talks about talks with the EU.

Brussels, which is always comfortable playing the long game, is reportedly considering asking for a 10- to 15-year review clause in the trade deal and fishing agreement.

If presented with this demand, David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, would be well within his rights to channel Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III and bellow: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

The deal that appears likely is a basic, “thin” agreement, despite bringing zero tariff, zero quota trade in goods.

The short amount of time left for the talks is a factor in negotiators focusing on the most potentially disruptive issues, such as aviation, now.

It is likely that both sides will want to put more flesh on the bare bones of the deal once the dust has settled.

One of the reasons the European Commission insists the trading relationship be covered by a single overarching treaty is that it will make it simpler to “plug” in new future agreements to rebuild the relationship over time.

Watch: COVID-19 - Bank of England warns long-term effects of no-deal Brexit worse than pandemic

The trade deal is 95 per cent done, it was claimed last week, but breakthroughs on the crucial issues of fishing, the level playing field guarantees remain elusive.

Even so, the deal feels close and the European Parliament has made plans for a late plenary session in the Christmas holidays to ensure it can be ratified before the end of year no-deal deadline.

Agreeing the trade deal, if it happens, is not an end but the beginning of a different UK-EU relationship.

As well as probable fresh negotiations, there will be continued talks over Northern Ireland, annual fishing negotiations, foreign policy cooperation and dialogue between regulators on subsidy law and financial regulation.

Brussels will probably find it easier to adjust to this new reality.

It has long been accustomed to receiving visits, praise, entreaties and threats from non-EU countries in its orbit, such as Switzerland and Norway.

Brexit has never been a finite process, even though the image of the ticking clock has loomed large over it.

It is a mobius strip that the EU and future governments will circle endlessly, repeating the same never-ending “brexistential” dramas over sovereignty, nationhood and trade.

Brussels has an almost limitless capacity for boredom, repetition and detail but British officials will have learnt from their baptism of fire in the UK’s first trade negotiation in 40 years.

It is not for nothing that Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, calls Brexit a “school of patience”.

Watch: What is a No-Deal Brexit?