British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will step back into the Brexit fray on Monday as he holds talks with the European Union’s top officials, with both sides looking to reset negotiations that have drifted into stalemate.
In Johnson’s first direct intervention in the discussions since the U.K. left the bloc at the end of January, each side is looking for tacit acknowledgment from the other that a deal on their future relations can still be reached. Since March, both sides have struggled to make progress as neither has shifted dramatically from their opening positions, leaving it unclear how the deadlock will be broken.
No breakthrough is expected from the video call between Johnson and the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament. The meeting is a requirement of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and will be a review of its implementation and the progress of the trade talks. While both sides speak of it as an opportunity to inject fresh impetus into the proceedings, officials say Monday’s conversation won’t be a forum for negotiation.
That will be left to the two teams of officials, who were last week given new marching orders to continue and step up the pace of their discussions over the next two months and beyond. The British government, which last week formally ruled out extending the deadline for a deal beyond the year-end, had been pushing for that intensification.
In addition to the formal rounds involving dozens of officials, the two sides’ chief negotiators plan to hold less technical meetings between themselves. That, people on both sides say, is a sign they know there is a path to a deal, even if it is still shrouded in fog.
While politicians and officials have struck a pessimistic tone in public, privately they are more positive. If discussions can make progress in July and August and wrap up in September, EU leaders could be asked to ratify a deal at their scheduled summit in October.
“During the past negotiation rounds, the U.K. must have taken note of the EU’s willingness to search for compromises,” the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said in a speech in Brussels last week. “What we now need to make progress are clear and concrete signals that the U.K., too, is open to work on an agreement.”
Nevertheless, both sides are still far apart, with each accusing the other of refusing to engage on fundamental issues. The U.K. still rejects the EU’s demands for a level playing field, which would bind Britain to some European rules in areas such as state aid and environmental law. The two sides are also at odds over law enforcement cooperation and how any agreement should be structured.
Fishing, in particular, remains a major source of disagreement: the U.K. has rebuffed the EU’s demand for continued access to British waters on the same terms it enjoys today. The bloc has made an agreement on this subject a prerequisite for any deal.