Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson will decide the fate of the Brexit negotiations tonight. The remarkable thing about it: EU chief negotiator Barnier is suddenly left out.
It really is a last ditch effort: Boris Johnson travels in the evening to Brussels and will gauge whether the Brexit negotiations still have a future during a meal with EU boss Ursula von der Leyen. This means that Von der Leyen has once again taken on the role of boss in the talks.
Over the weekend, a phone call between the President of the European Commission and Johnson resumed talks. Earlier, EU negotiator Michel Barnier and British negotiator Lord Frost had questioned the meaning of further talks.
Barnier returns to the second row through the von der Leyens Initiative. During his quarantine after a Corona case on his team, von der Leyen took over the conversation with London. Your chief strategist Stéphanie Riso was in regular contact with the British side. The Frenchman was surprisingly quick to make progress in negotiating the highly controversial issues – fisheries, fair competition and the framework for enforcing the agreements.
The problem: Barnier and especially France were not at all enthusiastic about the new pace and feared that von der Leyen’s team would make too many concessions to Great Britain. When Barnier personally took over the negotiations after his quarantine, he presented a paper last week that the British negotiators saw simply as an ambush.
Barnier paper destroys trust
Barnier’s proposal would have made Britain bound by EU regulations for years and also included the possibility of criminal charges if the British violate EU rules on environmental protection, workers’ rights and government subsidies. In doing so, he destroyed everything the von der Leyen team had achieved in just a few days of negotiating, causing a massive loss of confidence on the British side. In the course of this, talks were also interrupted and only resumed after a phone call from Johnson to von der Leyen last weekend.
Ursula von der Leyen and her Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier in the EU Parliament: The EU chief is now leading the Brexit deal negotiations. (Source: Vincent Kessler / Reuters)
The background is a dispute within the EU. Two blocks emerged in the Brexit negotiations. One side is led by France, who especially does not want to make concessions in the field of fishing rights. An attitude that provokes indignation on the British side, because in principle France wants to continue fishing as before after the British exit from the EU. France’s European Secretary of State Clément Beaune has even threatened a right of veto if insufficient account is taken of French interests. For France it is clear: better no deal than a bad one.
On the other side is a block led by Germany. He would be willing to continue to accommodate the British if this results in a Brexit deal. Angela Merkel has pointed it out for a deal several times both sides have to make some uncomfortable concessions. For Germany it is clear: better a deal with compromises than no deal at all.
From Leyens’ profiling campaign
That von der Leyen – at least not reluctantly – is once again playing the decisive role in the Brexit talks appears to be part of a profile campaign by the EU leader. Von der Leyen’s first year as President of the European Commission was disappointing to many. Already in the dispute with Poland and Hungary over compliance with the rule of law – which blocks the EU budget and thus the corona aid of the entire EU – she urged the two deviants with a tough stance. In doing so, she also opposed Merkel’s position, which, as always, was looking for compromise and compromise.
Emmanuel Macron in conversation with Ursula von der Leyen in Paris in 2019: France could stand in the way of an EU trade deal with Great Britain. (Source: Ludovic Marin / Reuters)
Von der Leyen’s Brexit initiative does not spark enthusiasm for the bloc gathering behind France. Your “Dinner For Two” is not without risk. Known as a charismatic rhetorician, Johnson will do everything he can to gain an advantage for himself and can also decide for himself whether the Brexit talks go ahead or not.
Von der Leyen cannot decide alone – Johnson can
Von der Leyen, on the other hand, is bound by its mandate. She can’t wave a deal through it. All 27 EU member states must agree to a trade agreement. During dinner with Johnson, however, she can indicate that the EU is ready to make further concessions so that negotiations can continue and lead the way. France and its allies will look very closely and read what von der Leyen and Johnson agree – should the talks continue. If von der Leyen and Johnson don’t see opportunities for compromise, they can label the negotiations tonight as a definitive failure.
Mutual trust and a willingness to compromise are a prerequisite for further discussions. After the developments of the past few weeks, neither is easy to recover. And then it has to be very fast. Numerous supposedly final deadlines have already passed, so it is better not to speculate about deadlines anymore. One thing is certain: the Brexit deal must be closed by December 31.