Brexit: will Boris Johnson betray hardline Tory MPs?

As Winston Churchill famously said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. However, jaw-jaw is less exciting, which is why the latest news about relations between Britain and the European Union has passed most people by.

In three separate areas, confidential discussions have been proposed to resolve tricky issues. Any or all may yet founder. Even if they all conclude in agreement, awkward questions will remain about long-term EU-UK relations, not least for Boris Johnson. But for the moment, a new tone has been set, at least in public: less raucous, more emollient.

First, vaccines. This issue has provoked the biggest recent frenzy. In January Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU would ban the export of Covid vaccines across the Ireland-UK border. The immediate uproar, not least from Dublin, forced the Commission President to reverse her decision two hours later. However, Britain’s pro-Brexiters lost no time to denounce von der Leyen as a someone who could not be trusted to stick by formal agreements.

(This accusation conveniently ignored the UK’s own pair of decisions to trash written agreements, by unilaterally extending the “grace period” for the Northern Ireland protocol [see below] and, weeks earlier, threatening to pass the Internal Market Bill, which UK ministers admitted broke its legal obligations to the EU.)

The wider issue, of Britons receiving their vaccines far faster than citizens of the EU, has added to a palpable sense that Brexit Britain has triumphed over bungling Brussels. Less remarked is that, by late March, the EU had exported 77 million vaccine doses to 33 countries (including 21 million to the UK), while Britain had exported precisely none. Global Britain? Protectionist Europe? The figures tell a different story.

Privately, both sides knew that grandstanding was doing no favours – not least because of the practical matter of making the vaccines in a cross-border world. For example, EU-made Pfizer vaccines depend on the supply of lipid nanoparticles from Britain. So talks are underway to dial down the rhetoric and design practical arrangements to keep everyone happy. Significantly, the UK’s negotiator is Sir Tim Barrow, a former UK ambassador to the EU and well-liked in Brussels, not the abrasive Lord Frost, a minister and formally Chief Negotiator, who seems to regard the EU as an enemy, not a partner.

The Northern Ireland protocol has been the second source of friction. In order to keep the inner-Ireland border fully open – and it’s the only land border between the UK and the EU – Northern Ireland has acquired a unique status. Politically, it is part of the UK; commercially, it applies EU regulations so that its businesses can trade freely with Ireland and, by extension, the rest of the EU.

To achieve this, the UK has agreed to a commercial border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This has caused traders all kinds of problems already, even before all the protocol’s rules come fully into force. This is supposed to happen this week (on April 1). In early March the UK Government said it would unilaterally extend the grace period that applies to some of the new rules, and not introduce full food controls for a further six months. Maros Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, responded by threatening legal action against the UK.

In late March, the EU sought to reduce the tension by offering talks on the issue. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, has led the way: Ireland has an huge interest in preventing anything that might undermine the Good Friday Agreement. At the time of writing, further progress has yet to be made. However, British ministers have gone quiet on this issue. This looks like a prelude to proper engagement with the EU and a desire to do a deal.

The third subject on which talks might break a deadlock is financial services. Brexit has been bad for the City of London. Thousands of jobs and billions of euros-worth of financial assets have left London. This is because the EU-UK withdrawal agreement preserves free trade for goods but not services.

Johnson has always said that he wanted Britain to “have its cake and eat it” over Brexit. That is, he wanted the UK to be free to set its own rules – but not to suffer any penalty for ignoring the EU’s rulebook. Not surprisingly, the EU rejects “cakeism”. To come to a deal on UK access to EU financial markets, a common framework would be needed for the rules and professional qualifications that both sides would obey.

On March 26, agreement was announced – not what the rules should be, but how to start the process of how to co-operate in this area.  A “joint UK-EU Financial Regulatory Forum”  has been set up. Technical discussions have already taken place; the Forum will explore the trickier political issues that need to be resolved.

Standing back and looking at the three issues together – over vaccines, the Northern Ireland protocol and financial services – we can see a distinct change in the mood music. The loud boasts of defiance have given way to the quieter language of negotiation.

How this process will play out is far from certain. The fundamental challenge of Brexit remains. Johnson won his big election victory sixteen months ago promising to “get Brexit done”. The three sets of talks now in progress or in prospect will test how far Johnson is prepared to compromise on UK sovereignty after all – and how flexible the EU is prepared to be in interpreting and enforcing its rules.

For example, many of the day-to-day problems with the Northern Ireland protocol would vanish if the UK accepted the EU’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary regime, and promised to abide by its rules now and in the future. No checks on food, plants or livestock would then be needed on trade across the Irish Sea. That would be the commercially wise choice for Johnson – but it would betray his commitment to “take back control” of Britain’s laws.

All in all, the negotiations will not be easy. Neither side wants the blame for failure. However, any agreement that can be reached is likely to upset someone: Britain’s most passionate Brexiters, the EU’s most fervent federalists, or both. Complaints of surrender are likely. Agreement, no agreement or partial agreement:  this delicate process will have long-term consequences for both London and Brussels.

This blog was first published by Carnegie Euirope