Brexit: How trade deal talks went from optimism to the brink

James Crisp
·8-min read
Michel Barnier faced accusations that he risked giving too much away -  Hollie Adams/ Bloomberg
Michel Barnier faced accusations that he risked giving too much away - Hollie Adams/ Bloomberg

Michel Barnier is accustomed to being universally praised on his regular tours of the EU's capitals to preach the gospel against Brexit.

On Tuesday, he was in the unfamiliar position of coming under friendly fire for the first time in three years as the EU's chief negotiator. 

It was an uncomfortable moment for Mr Barnier, who was headquartered at the Hotel Conrad in Westminster and is enmeshed in intensive Brexit negotiations with his UK counterpart David Frost. 

Expectation had been building that a trade agreement with Britain was close and a damaging no deal avoided. A fitting legacy for a politician who had dedicated decades of service to the EU was in Mr Barnier's grasp.

He was far from the poisonous briefings in Brussels that were going on behind his back – but bad news travels fast. The chief negotiator was going soft on Britain, EU diplomats in the Belgian capital sniped. He risked giving too much away.  

The European commission, and its German president, was caving in to pressure from Angela Merkel to make sure no deal was averted, they gossiped to the city's correspondents.  

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, has a far smaller fishing fleet in UK waters and its chancellor has a horror of no deal – although not at the cost of the Single Market rules that she sees as the bedrock of German prosperity. 

To make matters worse, Mr Barnier, an unflappable Gaullist, was under attack from the French, his own countrymen. "The French will turn on you before you know it," one EU source said. Paris has always had a reputation in Brussels for ruthlessly pursuing its agenda under the cloak of concern for the European project. 

One EU diplomat said the commission had received a "serious warning" from France that it was making dangerous concessions on key negotiating lines such as fishing and the "level playing field" guarantees, and that these "risked dividing member states."

The message was unmistakable and pointed. Ever since he was appointed as chief negotiator, Mr Barnier has insisted on the need for unity in the face of Brexit. He frequently refers to the requirement for a united front against the UK, which had once hoped to divide and conquer the member states. 

To everyone's surprise, the EU stayed united throughout the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations which paved the way for Brexit in January. Brussels got the best of those talks. Mr Barnier saw off no fewer than three Brexit Secretaries and Theresa May herself as the Tories and Parliament descended into bitter infighting. 

The divisions in Britain contrasted starkly with the unity of purpose of the commission, the EU member states and the European Parliament.  In fact, Brexit was just about the only thing the EU could agree on unanimously – but that looked to be changing.

But while the Withdrawal Agreement dealt with settling past commitments, the trade deal would impact the economies of member states. It went straight to the heart of their national interests. 

On Tuesday in Paris, Emmanuel Macron was welcoming Alexander de Croo, the newly installed prime minister of Belgium. Fishermen in both countries face ruin if they get a bad deal in the UK-EU talks over access to British waters

The French president warned that the agreement had to protect France's long term interests. Mr de Croo popped up with a footballing analogy, saying the trade talks were in injury time and it was important that the British didn't nick a last-minute winner. 

Mr Barnier got the message loud and clear, despite his preference for mountain walking and Winter Olympic sports such as the skeleton. 

Emmanuel Macron warned that warned that an agreement had to protect France's long term interests - Ludovic Marin/AFP
Emmanuel Macron warned that warned that an agreement had to protect France's long term interests - Ludovic Marin/AFP

A meeting to reassure the skittish member states was called for the morning. Early on Wednesday, before the Brexit negotiations resumed, he addressed the 27 ambassadors to the EU of the remaining member states by videolink. 

For the first time, Mr Barnier was under real pressure from EU governments, who were described as "jittery". One EU diplomat said: "If his intention was to reassure the ambassadors, he didn't succeed. Whatever he brings back to Brussels will be scrutinised very heavily."

It is a quirk of Brexit that the European commission has frequently been softer on Britain than EU governments.

France told Mr Barnier that a bad trade deal was worse than no deal and Paris would veto the deal if it didn't match expectations on fishing or subsidy law.  Forced into a rare defence of his negotiating strategy, Mr Barnier later told MEPs he had forced British demands for 80 percent of the value of the catch in UK waters down to 60 percent.

He could console himself in knowing he had a friend in Ireland, which remained grateful to him for preventing a hard border with the Withdrawal Agreement. Simon Coveney, the foreign minister of a country that will suffer badly from no deal, urged Mr Macron to back Mr Barnier and drop his veto threat in another sign of disquiet and disunity. 

On Wednesday evening, the British team were in a positive frame of mind. There was a sense the deal was getting closer and UK compromise proposals, which edged closer to the EU's position, had been tabled. 

In Number 10, Boris Johnson was beginning to formulate a game plan for when the deal was sealed. He would clinch the most difficult remaining compromises with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European commission. 

His next move would be to call Mr Macron at the weekend and ask the mercurial French president – who has always relished the role of Brexit bad cop – if he could back the negotiated deal. He understood only too well the political necessity for Mr Macron, who faces elections in 2022, to fight for his fisherman. He, too, had turned fisheries into a litmus test for Brexit. 

But with the French president's guarantee that he would not veto the agreement, the deal could progress towards Thursday's summit of EU leaders and beyond that to European Parliament ratification before the end of year no deal deadline.

The plan had the added advantage of neutering the potentially toxic issue of the Internal Market Bill, which is due to return to the House of Commons on Monday. Brussels hates the Bill because of the no deal clauses, removed by peers, that relate to Northern Ireland, override the Withdrawal Agreement and break international law. 

Mr Barnier had already warned that the clauses, if restored, would precipitate another crisis in the talks. 

But the EU was about to trigger its own mini-crisis. On Thursday afternoon, according to UK sources, the bloc slapped down fresh demands for the "level playing field" guarantees.  

On Friday, this was followed up with more hardline demands on fishing and the repeated threat of a veto by France's Europe minister. The EU insists its demands are not new, but the UK is adamant that its frustrations are genuine.

This was not what the British were expecting. They had hoped to find a proposal where, finally, the two sides' red lines could overlap. Instead, the briefing wars fired up again.

Lord Frost, the UK's chief negotiator, may have allowed himself a wry smile. He would remember the endless admonishments by Brussels of the House of Commons' inability to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement before Mr Johnson took power and won last December's general election.

Lord Frost, the UK's chief negotiator -  Aaron Chown/ PA
Lord Frost, the UK's chief negotiator - Aaron Chown/ PA

It is easy to be united when enjoying your negotiator telling off your opponent about ticking clocks and cherries on a cake. But it is far harder to keep 27 competing interests travelling in one direction when it comes to the crunch, especially when there are elections around the corner. 

Hard-hearted officials could point out that Brussels only had itself to blame after having refused for so long to negotiate on legal texts, a UK demand since the summer. Instead, the negotiators tried to salvage the progress that had been so suddenly lost after the intervention by France and the other member states. 

Mr Barnier and Lord Frost have determination and patience in common, and both have sworn to keep negotiating until the last possible moment. Mr Barnier, who is fond of reminding people  he voted for the UK to join the EEC, will return to Brussels on Saturday, perhaps with fresh compromises for member states to scrutinise. 

Monday, and Thursday's EU summit, remain targets. Mr Johnson will talk to Mrs von der Leyen on Saturday and is expected to still talk to Mr Macron. But the negotiations hang in the balance.

The irony is that just when Britain most needs the EU to be united, it is at its most divided in the entire saga of Brexit. 

If the deal is done, the focus will switch to the European Council, where Mrs Merkel, the undisputed "Queen of Europe", will look to protect her legacy by securing an orderly Brexit in her final term as chancellor. 

But most eyes will be on Mr Macron, the staunchly pro-EU pretender to her throne with a taste for disruption, and what his next move will be.