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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has threatened to pull out of trade talks with the European Union if an agreement is not struck by mid-October. He has also hinted that he could back out of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The UK government is becoming more defiant in tone. At the weekend, chief Brexit negotiator David Frost said he was not scared of walking away from trade talks with the European Union — and that was just for starters. On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set a mid-October deadline for an agreement between Britain and the bloc. If none were found, he said, the United Kingdom would prepare for a future without a deal. The increased boldness on the behalf of UK officials comes ahead of the planned publication of an internal market bill that would undermine key tenets of the most recent exit pact. The behavior could be interpreted as bluffing if it were not for the Northern Ireland protocol and the fact that Britain might no longer be able to comply with certain aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement.
"Under the withdrawal agreement, the UK must notify Brussels of any state-aid decisions that would affect Northern Ireland's goods market, and compel businesses in the province to file customs paperwork when sending goods into the rest of the UK," the Financial Times reported on Monday.
EU observers were unsure how to assess the report. Was it part of a negotiation strategy or just saber-rattling? Was Johnson just trying to placate the Brexit hard-liners in his party who have been agitating against the Withdrawal Agreement for a while already? Or is he really preparing Britain for a hard no-deal Brexit?
A breach of the Withdrawal Agreement would be considered a red line by the EU. But Johnson insisted that even a no-deal Brexit would be a "good outcome" for the United Kingdom, which would "prosper mightily as a result." If Britain crashes out without a deal at the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020, the country will have to trade with the bloc on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms. EU cars imported to Britain would be subject to 10% tariffs; dairy products could be marked up 35%.
"As a government we are preparing, at our borders and at our ports, to be ready for it," Johnson said. "We will have full control over our laws, our rules and our fishing waters."
Britain's insistence that it have full autonomy on state aid to industries and fishing has been a particular sticking point in the trade talks. Frost said Britain would not become a "client state" of the European Union.
The UK government's insistence on sovereignty and wanting to "take back control" has also caused the EU negotiators to dig their heels in further and require certain conditions in order for Britain to have access to the single market. Aside from the tariffs and customs duties, it is the nonfinancial barriers — plant and animal health regulations, rules of origin, hygiene standards, etc. — that are crucial here. Beginning in January, the European Union will be entitled to impose all kinds of controls at the bloc's borders with Britain. WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo told the BBC that the adjustments could be "particularly painful" for some sectors.
Read more: Did everything change on Brexit day?
Negotiations between EU representatives and Britain's government were expected to continue on Tuesday in London. However, there is the risk that EU officials will see a declaration of war in the announcement that Britain's government would publish sections of the internal market bill on Wednesday and reports that these could override aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement. EU officials have always said there would only be a trade deal if Britain's government complies with this agreement. "Prime Minister, there is no such thing as a good outcome in #Brexit," Manfred Weber, a German member of the European Parliament from Bavaria's Christian Social Union, wrote in a tweet directed at Johnson. "Instead of taking Northern Ireland hostage again, it would be better that you keep your word and stand by the Withdrawal Agreement. Can we trust you keep your word?"
Britain's government signed the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allows the two Irelands — the EU member Republic of Ireland and the UK's Northern Ireland — to be considered a unified economic entity even after Brexit, in autumn 2019. The idea was to maintain the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which put an end to years of militarized conflict to create an independent and unified Ireland.
Overriding the protocol would "be a very unwise way to proceed," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney wrote on Twitter.
Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, Michelle O'Neill, tweeted: "As the Brexit negotiations between the EU and British Government enter their eighth round this week in London, any threats of a roll back on the Irish protocol would represent a treacherous betrayal which would inflict irreversible harm on the all-Ireland economy, and GFA."
In Brussels, diplomats spoke of a "strategy of self-harm." Some were cautious not to say too much before the release of the internal market bill. Others said Johnson was trying to blackmail the European Union with Northern Ireland: threatening that if the bloc did no't give him a trade deal like the one Canada enjoys, then he would simply breach the Withdrawal Agreement.
EU officials do not seem all that bothered by Johnson's October 15 deadline. The European Union's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had himself set the end of October as the final deadline. EU officials say tey have proposed solutions for the sticking points regarding "fair competition," fisheries and the legal requirements of the agreement. But it appears that their British counterparts have not made similar concessions.
EU officials do not see any scope for further rapprochement, while UK authorities would apparently like a member state — ideally Germany — to intervene and put pressure on the bloc to tone down its demands. This appears unlikely. Barnier enjoys the trust of the governments of the EU member states, most of which have their own problems and are tired of the Brexit negotiations. The threats from London might be received with shrugs across the European Union.
Whatever the case, the next round of negotiations in London seems doomed to failure in this poisonous atmosphere.