When Boris Johnson had his breakthrough meeting with then Irish leader Leo Varadkar outside Liverpool in 2019, he had a burning need to strike a Brexit deal and only one major obstacle standing in the way: the Irish border. Faced with either betraying Brexiters in his party, which would have been the end of his leadership, or plunging his country into the chaos of a no-deal exit, the UK prime minister met the European Union more than halfway and clinched a deal.
At first look, the picture couldn’t be more different this year. As Britain and the EU enter their final round of post-Brexit trade talks before Johnson’s October 15 deadline, there isn’t one sticking point but multiple ones — from access to UK fishing waters for European boats and Brussels demands for a level playing field on state aid to issues around police and judicial cooperation and even how the treaty will be administered and disputes settled.
Negotiations rely on a degree of trust and chemistry to succeed. Johnson may have been regarded skeptically by Europe’s leaders when he replaced Theresa May as prime minister, but there was an effort to build a rapport and take him at his word. A year later, trust in the UK government from the EU side has been eroded. The bloc is threatening legal action over the Internal Market Bill, a bombshell piece of British legislation that breaches international law by overriding parts of the Brexit treaty pertaining to Northern Ireland. Johnson’s excuse for breaking the deal is that he signed the treaty in a hurry.
Nor is the motivation quite the same this year. Crashing out of the bloc last year with no divorce deal in place would have brought an overnight jolt to just about everything: markets, supply chains, travel, jobs and food bills. The EU too was motivated. The costs for Ireland alone would have been massive.
If it doesn’t work out this time, the consequences are more a tumble down the stairs than a fall off a cliff for the UK. For Johnson, with an 80-seat parliamentary majority, his reputation may take a hit, but his leadership isn’t obviously on the line. While the EU would clearly prefer a deal, bandwidth in Brussels has been taken up with more pressing issues; a defense of the bloc’s rules and principles will take precedence.
If it weren’t for Covid-19, you’d say the chances of a deal right now were slim to none. And yet, the pandemic really does change the political calculus. Johnson is already facing battles on several fronts: criticism over his handling of the new coronavirus as case numbers rise and the UK’s test-and-trace system has proved a shambles; a rebellion in Parliament over his Covid laws; and pushback from even Brexit-supporting loyalists over his plans to breach international law. Nobody thinks this winter will be anything but painful for the Brits.