Boris Johnson has just over five weeks to try to deactivate the mine that he buried himself in early 2020. Most British, overwhelmed by the pandemic, have banished Brexit from their concerns, but if London and Brussels are unable to agreeing to an orderly end of the transition period, before the end of the year, all the springs would be put in place to unleash a perfect storm. "The most important impact on our economy, for 2021, will not be caused by a no-deal Brexit, but by the coronavirus," the British Economy Minister, Rishi Sunak, defended this Sunday on the BBC. Like his prime minister, Sunak knows that the short-term consequences of an abrupt exit from the European Union will be dire for the country's businesses, but he clings to a voluntarist discourse that “Britain will prosper in the long term, with or no agreement ”. And he is confident that the cataclysm caused by the current health crisis can camouflage the possible mistakes of Downing Street.
The EU and the United Kingdom are negotiating practically constantly to reach an agreement that avoids border, customs and trade chaos on January 1. The European Commission has been more optimistic in recent days about the possibility of reaching a pact, after touching the breakdown of the negotiations throughout the summer. But the deepest differences remain open, regarding measures to prevent unfair competition and the access of the Community fishing fleet to British waters. Brussels does not hide the danger of reaching the end of the year without an agreement and the Union is preparing contingency measures in the event of a possible hit.
"After difficult weeks, in the last days we have seen better progress, more movement," celebrated the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen last week. London was expressed along the same lines, where the progress made by the negotiators, led by Michel Barnier, on the European side, and David Frost, on the British side, is recognized.
Work against the clock since last October 22, with practically daily negotiations, has already made it possible to reach a common text that would shape the future trade relations treaty. But the points of contention remain intact.
The impact of the pandemic has also complicated the final stretch because the European negotiating team is in quarantine after a positive for covid-19 of one of its members last week. Barnier and Frost remain in contact and negotiations continue online. But in such a delicate haggling it seems difficult to reach a definitive agreement without a physical meeting in London or Brussels.
The clearest sign that Johnson wants and needs to close something with the EU, however, could be seen the week before, when an internal crisis broke out in Downing Street that ended with the resignation of the star adviser and Brexit ideologue, Dominic Cummings, and from your team. Frost is a fervent eurosceptic, ally and friend of Cummings. The prime minister breathed easy when he received the promise that he would not abandon ship and would remain in command of the negotiations.
Everything is moving forward, and at the same time everything is still stagnant before the same obstacles. The EU demands a reliable and stable system to settle future disputes, while London is wary of any formula that could be interpreted as a curtailment of its national sovereignty and its freedom to legislate or grant state aid. And the dispute over the fishing sector remains jammed and is emerging as a candidate for the final bargain.
Nervousness spreads in European countries, especially in those potentially most affected by the lack of agreement, such as the Netherlands or Belgium, or in those reluctant to make last-minute concessions to avoid a break, with France at the forefront. Paris already urged the European Commission last week to approve the contingency plans that would be launched on January 1 to alleviate the possible economic and social consequences of the lack of agreement.
Brussels, for the moment, is reluctant to activate the emergency mode to maintain pressure on the need to reach a pact. But the plans are prepared and replicate, to a large extent, those drawn up in 2019 when the Theresa May's government's failure to approve the exit agreement pointed to a tremendously abrupt Brexit.
Community sources recall, however, that the current situation has changed because Brexit was already consummated on January 31 and now it is a matter of agreeing on future coexistence but without the risk of a brutal and uncontrolled rupture. Contingency measures, therefore, could be applied for shorter periods and with fewer reciprocal concessions on both sides.
Support to the fishing sector
The plan envisages, in any case, measures to support the fishing sector, which could benefit from both national and European aid in the eight countries most affected by the foreseeable cut in the catch quota: France, whose catches account for almost a third of the value of total European catches, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Spain.
Brussels does not rule out violent friction between European and British fishermen if an agreement is not reached and the right to fish in British waters is abruptly interrupted on December 31. The Boris Johnson government needs a drastic cut in European quotas to ingratiate itself with the latent unrest in Scotland and, in particular, with its fishermen's areas, the only ones in the region where there was a favorable vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
With regard to rail transport, the EU has already approved the rules that will allow the continuation of the Paris and Brussels links with London. France and the United Kingdom must in turn negotiate an international agreement regulating movement through the Channel Tunnel. Passenger traffic is expected to continue normally.
In this case, the pandemic may favor a smoother transition because traffic has dropped drastically, judging by the billing figures of the Canal operator, Getlink. The company's revenue fell 25% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the previous year.
The airline industry is also confident that the agreement will maintain a status quo similar to the current one. In the event of a breakdown, Brussels and London can extend flight rights for a few months, but they can limit them from point to point, that is, without the possibility for airlines to schedule stopovers.
Much more complications are expected when it comes to freight traffic. Both the European Commission and the Johnson Government have warned that with or without an agreement, the transit of goods will be subject to a much more cumbersome process than until now because the United Kingdom leaves, in addition to the EU, the internal market and the customs union . Without an agreement, in addition, many exports would be subject to high tariffs. Both parties anticipate traffic jams at border posts, although London has announced that it will introduce controls progressively during the first half of 2021. British companies, who have relied on an agreed solution for all this time, now warn that the majority will not they are ready for the transition. Previous contingency plans have become obsolete, and the blow of the pandemic has exhausted their capacity for maneuver and response.
The time to reach a pact is also running out because the agreement must be ratified in parliament on both sides. The European Parliament holds its last session in mid-December although, in extreme cases, an extraordinary session could be organized later. London believes it could ratify it in a matter of days. "We have seen many deadlines set and disappear, but the only one that cannot be moved is next January 1, when the transition period ends," the European Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said last week.