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With the U.K. in turmoil, Brexit talks appear to be slipping backward

by Ian Wishart

Bloomberg

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists his priority is still to get a Brexit deal rather than leave on Oct. 31 without one. European Union officials with knowledge of the negotiations in Brussels are not convinced, saying a lack of seriousness suggests the British side is playing for time. So what’s really going on?

Johnson was heckled by a passerby in Morley in West Yorkshire on Friday who told him he “should be in Brussels negotiating.”

In truth, his envoy, David Frost, is there for meetings with the European Commission twice a week. They’re scheduled to continue this week.

While a U.K. spokesman called them “constructive,” one EU official with knowledge of the negotiations said they were farcical, another said they were useless, and a third said they appeared only to be there to boost Johnson’s election prospects. All spoke on condition of anonymity.

When Johnson was named prime minister six weeks ago, claiming he’d leave the EU on Oct. 31 “do or die” and demanding that the “backstop” for the U.K.-Irish border be removed completely rather than just tweaked, the EU was worried. But then the mood improved after the prime minister charmed French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and sang from their song sheet on other global issues at the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, two weeks ago. Yet the positivity has dissipated quickly, because of a lack of what the EU considers to be serious proposals.

The EU is willing to look at replacing the backstop, but the trouble is, EU negotiators do not think that is possible. Nothing in what Frost has presented has suggested he does either, officials said.

Last week, he showed them a new version of the backstop but it merely consisted of the bits the U.K. doesn’t like crossed out — and that amounted to a large portion of it. Only elements related to the rights of citizens, the island of Ireland’s common travel area and the island’s single electricity market remained.

The EU says that is not good enough because any solution must do the same job as the existing mechanism: avoid checks on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland indefinitely.

Johnson has suggested there’s a solution to be found in making the island of Ireland a single area when it comes to food and animal standards and rules. The EU acknowledges it could be a step in the right direction, but it isn’t nearly enough to replace the backstop.

The EU agreed reluctantly for Friday’s talks to focus on these sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls, officials said. But the commission briefed diplomats Friday evening that it was almost impossible to talk about the issue without a wider discussion on customs rules, something that the U.K. wasn’t willing to do.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Sunday poured cold water on the idea, saying agri-food only accounts for 30 percent of cross-border trade. Varadkar and Johnson are to meet Monday, with the Irish leader saying he does not expect a breakthrough.

The backstop as devised now would keep the U.K. in the EU’s customs union and Northern Ireland in many single-market rules until the EU agrees that a future trading arrangement with Britain makes it unnecessary. Johnson says that is undemocratic because the U.K. would be in a relationship it can never escape unilaterally.

In talks with the EU on Friday, U.K. negotiator Frost signaled he wanted the Northern Ireland assembly to have a veto over the backstop before and after Brexit. Leaving aside that the assembly is currently suspended, this isn’t acceptable to the EU, officials said. The bloc would allow the assembly to have some say, but only as part of the U.K.’s overall input in the U.K.-EU joint committee overseeing the arrangement.

Most EU officials say that if there is a deal to be done — and there’s huge skepticism about that — the backstop will look like its original incarnation. That kept only Northern Ireland, rather than the whole U.K., aligned to EU rules, and Johnson’s idea for an all-Ireland agri-food zone points in that direction.

The initial backstop plan was criticized for establishing a “border in the Irish Sea” and was scrapped about a year ago after resistance from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Conservative government in Westminster. But since Johnson now lacks a majority in Parliament even with the DUP, the original backstop could be making a comeback. That’s something the EU would accept.

But it’s not just the backstop. EU officials have concerns about other demands from London.

The U.K. has signaled in the past few days that it wants looser security cooperation, EU officials said. This has alarmed the EU, which considers this the basis of positive relations in the years ahead.

Also, Frost told EU negotiators the government wants to remove references in the political declaration on the post-Brexit relationship to a “level playing field,” which would keep the U.K. aligned to many EU standards in areas such as competition, environmental protection, taxation and state aid. The EU says all that is necessary for an ambitious free-trade agreement with the U.K.

It’s still not certain how the EU will react to any U.K. request for another Brexit delay beyond Oct 31. (Johnson says he won’t ask for a delay, despite losing a Parliament vote saying he must if no deal has been approved.) All 27 remaining EU government leaders must consent to any extension. While there will be a lot of dissenting voices, it’s unlikely the EU would refuse a postponement and throw the U.K. out of the bloc against its will and without a deal, officials said. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian threatened to block an extension, the Guardian reported on Sunday.

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