The week of pantomime-like negotiations that brought Britain back to the Brexit negotiating table

James Crisp
·4 min read
Michel Barnier
Michel Barnier

It was only a week ago that Boris Johnson declared the Brexit trade talks over, and said the UK would “embrace” WTO terms.

Just days later, both sides were back around the table. The resumption of talks followed a series of carefully choreographed moves which saw the European Union meet British conditions to restart the negotiations.

Many in Brussels have suggested that they never believed Boris Johnson was serious when he threatened a no deal Brexit. 

The EU is, after all, used to fiery summit walkouts during tense negotiations, which traditionally happen just before a deal is done. It clears the atmosphere and rolls the pitch for concessions.

Nevertheless, Mr Johnson had said that unless a trade deal was “in sight” by the October 15 EU summit, the UK should quit negotiations.

Once it was clear his deadline would be missed, the Prime Minister called the presidents of the European Commission and Council. On the eve of the summit, he told them to agree to round the clock talks or else.  

As EU leaders arrived in Brussels for their first in depth discussion of Brexit this year, it became clear they planned to call his bluff.  

A commitment to “intensified negotiations” was removed from the summit conclusion. EU leaders told the UK to make the “necessary moves” on the three major issues of fishing, level playing field and enforcement.

David Frost, in a breach of protocol that infuriated EU officials, took to Twitter and let rip just as Michel Barnier began a summit press conference.

Lord Frost was “disappointed” and “surprised”, and Mr Johnson would decide how to react to the snub, he tweeted.

A blindsided Mr Barnier attempted to repair the damage. He would be in London on Monday for intense negotiations, he said.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron tried to soothe wounded British egos the next day but it was no good. Trade talks were over, Mr Johnson said on Friday, unless the EU had a “fundamental” change in its approach. But crucially, he did not slam the door shut on further negotiations.  

One EU diplomat described it as such a "transparent move" that not even the markets bought it.

Lord Frost held the first in a series of talks about talks with Mr Barnier. He told him not to bother coming to London on Monday.

The EU’s chief negotiator called instead on Monday. He said the EU would agree to British demands for intensified talks, on all 11 subjects under negotiation and, for the first time, on the basis of legal texts.

The EU had previously paused talks in other areas until Britain moved on the three major stumbling blocks, in a strategy called “parallelism”.

Mr Barnier tweeted his offer just as Michael Gove stood to address the House of Commons on Brexit. Was this revenge for his wrongfooting at the summit?

Thinking fast, Mr Gove said it was proof the PM’s tactics were working.

Lord Frost held out for more. He wanted explicit acknowledgement that both sides would move in the talks, and not just the UK.

Behind the scenes, a plan was being cooked up. On Tuesday, The Telegraph exclusively reported that Mr Barnier would be back in London for renewed negotiations on Thursday. The Government denied the story.

On Wednesday, Mr Barnier gave a speech (and Lord Frost what he wanted). The EU would compromise with its “sovereign equal” Britain and a deal was in reach, he said in the European Parliament.

The two negotiators held an hour of talks to hammer the rules for the intensified negotiations.

On Wednesday night, Mr Barnier’s team told EU diplomats not to leak details of Brexit briefings to protect the fragile peace. The news was promptly leaked.

On Thursday, Mr Barnier’s Eurostar pulled into St Pancras. Sporting an EU-branded coronavirus mask, he told reporters both sides had a “huge common responsibility” to avoid no deal.

Michel Barnier at St Pancras
Michel Barnier at St Pancras

The EU is happy to paint Mr Johnson as a tough master negotiator if it gets the deal done.

But with British feet safely back under the table, France’s Europe Minister made it clear he never believed Mr Johnson would have gone through with it. 

Clément Beaune said: "If the British thought they could live with 'the freedom' of no deal outside of the EU, if it was so easy and so comfortable, they would have already left without a deal.”

EU sources said the battle with Brussels succeeded in creating “political space” for Mr Johnson to make necessary concessions in a “flounce and fold” strategy.

Whether or not Mr Johnson would ever have carried out his threat, he has walked away with a British victory. But it is one of process rather than substance. 

The same major three obstacles remain but there is now cautious optimism a deal can now be done in two to three weeks' time.

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