Brexit 5: From bad to worse

There is no light at the end of this tunnel

Last Friday we ended the week with a gloomy looking Michael Barnier, EU chief negotiator for the Brexit talks, informing us that a deal at this point ‘seems unlikely’ and that he was ‘disappointed’ and ‘concerned’. This echoes the feelings of many citizens and businesses across the EU and the UK that fear that the worst might be yet to come, and that these four years since the UK voted to leave the EU might have amounted to nothing much in terms of achieving a positive outcome for this sour divorce.

The fact that both sides are expressing frustration and exasperation is not promising and probably means that we can all forget about reaching a deal by October, in time to get it ratified before the end of the transition period on 31st December.


Germany drops Brexit from EU summit talks

Nothing illustrates this frustration better than Germany’s decision to scrap Brexit altogether from the EU summit’s agenda scheduled for next week. “What is the point?” Germany seems to be saying. So much so for the hopes that Angela Merkel would play a pivotal role in moving the negotiations forward this Autumn.

Both Germany and France have called for “concrete answers” from the negotiation teams, but EU diplomats warn that the UK is willing to risk a no-deal scenario, and they see a recent paper leaked to the Sun on Sunday revealing the UK government’s plans in case of no-deal as proof of this willingness.

On the UK side, however, they point to the EU reluctance to solve the most difficult and controversial issues – i.e. fisheries and state aid policy – at a later stage in the negotiations and instead insisting that every issue needs to be agreed in parallel. UK officials believe that this is taking hold of negotiations and stopping any progress in other areas.


And speaking of controversial issues

The UK is reportedly attempting to open up discussions with the EU on the issue of geographical indications (GIs) and their protection after Brexit.

The Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK and the EU in October 2019 included provisions preserving the status of food protected under GIs (e.g. Parma Ham, Champagne) unless and until a new deal can be negotiated.

A British proposal on the protected status for food and drinks has been included in a draft free trade agreement prepared by the UK and shared with its EU counterparts last week in an attempt to move forward the negotiation. According to some EU sources, the UK is reportedly trying to diminish the protection of EU geographical indications in this proposal. UK officials have however pointed out that the proposal is in line with the Withdrawal Agreement and offers protection for UK and EU GIs.


Phil Hogan resignation – further set back in the negotiations?

The Brussels bubble has gone into commotion this week after it was revealed that Phil Hogan, Trade Commissioner and previous Agriculture Commissioner, had attended a high-end dinner party in Ireland with 80 other attendees, thus breaking the social distancing rules put in place to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. Although insisting he hadn’t broken any laws, Hogan has resigned amidst increasing pressure both within the EU Commission and back home in Ireland.

Hogan is a popular character in Brussels and was highly praised during his role as Agriculture Commissioner during the previous Juncker Commission. During that time he sometimes made blunt comments regarding the Brexit negotiations, even going so far as publicly calling Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage the “Three Stooges”.

Since he was reappointed to take over the trade portfolio, he has received further praise in his new role, and many in Brussels have questioned whether having him resign at such a delicate time, with the Brexit negotiations at such perilous impasse, is a wise idea. Others however have quickly pointed out that Hogan has had no role in the Brexit negotiations and this argument has been used as an excuse by Ireland to avoid losing the trade portfolio.


And the latest unpopular move by Boris Johnson is…

Meanwhile in the UK, it was leaked that Boris Johnson is considering appointing Tony Abbott, former Australian Prime Minister, as a UK trade envoy.

Although the Department of Trade has quickly responded that no decision has been made yet, they have not refuted that Abbot is being considered, raising strong criticism from UK’s shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry.

Abbott is a controversial figure who has, among other things, denied climate change. He has also praised Donald Trump’s presidency and has been accused of having misogynistic views. Criticism has also pointed out to his lack of experience on trade matters.

Abbot has also expressed “conflicting” views about Brexit in the past. Prior to the EU exit referendum, he wrote against the UK leaving the EU claiming that “any British decision to withdraw from the European Union would have seismic consequences”. But after the referendum he quickly changed his mind becoming a strong Brexit supporter.