By Stefan J. Bos
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed on Friday that it was very likely that talks would fail. He made it clear that Britain might leave the European Union's orbit without a trade agreement.
In separate remarks, Johnson said their negotiations were snagged on regulatory measures and fishing rights. "The deal on the table is really not at the moment right for the UK," he said. "I tell you why. There is a couple of things, at least. The most important is that, really, in the last couple of weeks, they've brought back the idea of this equivalence between the UK and the EU, which basically means that whatever new laws they brought in, we would have to follow. Or else we face punishments, sanctions, tariffs, or whatever. And the second thing obviously is fisheries where many years after people have voted to leave the EU we wouldn't still have control of our waters," Johnson added.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, is also pessimistic about the prospects of a breakthrough in talks with Britain. Commission President Ursula van der Leyen suggested that both sides should prepare for a messy divorce. "It is difficult," she warned. "We are willing to grant access to the single market to our British friends; it is the largest single market in the world. But the conditions have to be fair. They have to be fair for our workers and for our companies. And this fine balance has not been achieved so far," Von der Leyen noted.
"Our negotiators are still working, and we will make a decision on Sunday," she told reporters in Brussels.
Markets didn't like that news. The British pound tumbled, and stocks fell as investors started to price in the risk of a chaotic end to the five-year Brexit crisis.
The standoff overshadowed the European Union summit. Leaders did agree on a 1.8 trillion euro ($2.2 trillion) EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund after Hungary and Poland withdrew their veto. Both EU member states threatened to torpedo funds if payments were tied to rule-of-law standards.
Hungary and Poland have been criticized by the EU over their perceived crackdown on independent media and limiting the judiciary and other institutions' independence.
The compromise, brokered by Germany — which holds the EU's rotating presidency — theoretically still ties the funding to respect for rule-of-law standards. But sanctions can't be triggered before the European Court of Justice rules on the new regulations' legality.
Besides, the European Commission will have to determine how the mechanism will work. Experts suggest the legal wrangling could take up to two years.