Earlier this week, we listed four possible outcomes from Boris Johnson’s visit to Brussels: triumph, sellout, last-ditch gamble, or simply showing willing before talks collapse. We omitted a fifth: talking followed by more talking.
The new deadline for deal or No Deal is Sunday – with claims that Parliament could sit as late as December 31 to approve any deal that might be agreed.
Why shouldn’t the two sides of the table just talk and talk and talk, in the manner of the to-and-fro which eventually resulted in the Belfast Agreement – on into the New Year until an agreement is reached?
The obvious retort is that under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, the transition period ends in the new year, and that’s that (unless someome somewhere is proposing a quickfire limited renegotiation with Parliamentary approval to follow, which would be easier floated than done),
Which raises the question of whether talks would stop in the event of No Deal. Well, the UK and the EU are scarcely going to delete each other’s phone numbers from their address books. But contact is a very different thing from negotiation.
Our best guess is that if the negotiation ends on Sunday, both sides will nonetheless agree to “keep talking”, for all the imminence of January 1. Neither will want to take the blame for ending talks (with Joe Biden, or anyone else).
But such talks might well be honoured more in the breach than the observance. This could depend, in turn, on how acrimoniously the present negotiation ends.
So far, the UK and the EU have avoided blamemongering, but it’s very hard indeed to see that lasting if the negotiation ends.
Furthermore, Michel Barnier is due to retire at the end of January since, according to the European Commission’s staff rules, he must retire at 70 (a milestone he is due to reach on January 9th).
His willingness or otherwise to stay on appears to be unknown. Whether technically he would receive a new mandate would be less important than the EU’s willingness to change its approach in any significant way.
That would depend on the EU being prepared to move from its present position, especially on the level playing field impasse, or else the UK doing so, or both.
You must judge for yourself how likely this would be on either side amidst an aftermath of name-calling and mudslinging from both sides of the channel.
Nonetheless, any standoff will eventually end. Sooner or later, there will be talks about talks. And then, at some point, talks – with the two parties back round the negotiating table.
A deal, No Deal: these come and go. But for politicians, talking is forever.