12 June 2020

The future relationship negotiations between Britain and the EU, which commenced on 3 March 2020, teach many lessons in the art of negotiation. Among these are the obvious value of certain kinds of deadline and the less obvious value of publicly announcing ‘red lines’ before talks start. For present purposes I shall concentrate on what they reveal about video-conferencing and whether it has all been for show.

Planned to alternate between Brussels and London, the negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU were scheduled to proceed through rounds lasting three to four days at two to three week intervals, and be reviewed at a high-level meeting in June. It was also acknowledged that they would have to conclude no later than October in order to allow time for ratification before the end of the transition period on 31 December, an interval provided to ease Britain’s practical break with the EU on that date; any extension of the transition period beyond this date would need to be requested by the end of June.

The first round was held face-to-face in Brussels – and then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Since then, all of the meetings between British and EU negotiators have been conducted by video-conferencing. (This also applies to the meetings of the EU-UK Joint and Specialised Committees designed to follow up the Withdrawal Agreement.) It is true that little if any progress has been made in the video talks on critical differences, notably concerning fair competition rules. The sheer number and complexity of the issues is forbidding and there is not even agreement on the packaging of any settlement, the EU preferring one comprehensive agreement and Britain insisting instead on a number of separate ones. The result is that the overall outcome is still in the balance. The obvious inability of video-conferencing to provide opportunities for ‘corridor diplomacy’ has certainly not helped, which has been admitted; nor has the fact that this method has left the parties too exposed to pressure from their suspicious home constituencies, which has not. And this is no doubt why there have been strong indications that, with the pandemic in Europe seeming to be past its peak and time for the negotiations running out, there have been strong hints that the next rounds will return to the face-to-face format, with hopes that in July they can go into the ‘tunnel’, the fashionable term for proper, secret negotiations.

Video-conferencing might have demonstrated its limitations in these talks but improvements in the technology and access to it, and rapidly growing familiarity with its use had clearly enabled its potential to be exploited more fully. The EU was using it for more limited diplomatic purposes; for example, for summits on the Western Balkans on 6 May and with Japan on 26 May, as well as for meetings of the European Council. For the UK’s part, video-conferencing of its much-heralded trade talks with the United States began in early May, and Boris Johnson himself delighted in hosting by video-conference the Global Vaccine Summit on 4 June, although this was chiefly designed not for any negotiations but to cement financial pledges and allow the British prime minister to boast of Britain’s contribution to world health. It is not surprising, therefore, that video-conferencing was able to serve one crucial and very obvious purpose in the talks starting in early March on the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU: it enabled some progress to be made on less controversial issues and thereby preserved their momentum. Had this been lost, such would have been the distractions of the public health and economic consequences of the pandemic that they would have collapsed, and – to the unalloyed joy of the numerous and influential Brexit ultras in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party – Britain would be leaving the EU without a deal on 31 December.

But is Boris Johnson’s government, as it claims, negotiating seriously, or is it simply going through the motions? Has the video-conferencing all been for show? David Frost, Britain’s chief negotiator in the current talks, is a former diplomat with Eurosceptic views that were probably long-held and were at odds with the overwhelmingly pro-EU atmosphere of the Foreign Office – possibly one of the reasons why he changed career at the age of only 48. Nevertheless, he has first class trade and EU credentials for his role (Diplomatic Service List, 2006, p. 210; Wikipedia) and an early-announced belief that a deal should and could be made with the EU for either a Norway- or Canada-style future relationship. There is no obvious reason to doubt his personal sincerity in seeking to avoid a British cliff-edge departure on 31 December, and Johnson’s reliance on his expertise argues for the sincerity of the prime minister’s own announced commitment to getting a deal. The prime minister must also be worried that a looming no-deal exit at the end of the year will weaken his hand in his parallel trade negotiations with the Americans, which are hardly likely to conclude before the presidential election in early November (unless in the shape of a ‘mini’ deal) and would probably be paralysed by a victory for the more pro-EU (and pro-Irish) Joe Biden until well after the new president’s inauguration in late January 2021. The prime minister also has such a large majority in the House of Commons that he could risk the wrath of his Brexit ultras by accepting a deal that included concessions to Brussels that were anathema to them. He could blame the pandemic for forcing him to take this course and would be rewarded with praise from business, finance, agriculture, aviation, road haulage, trade unions, the universities, the police, and the intelligence community alike – not to mention the Premier League’s football clubs; at the time of writing, he has just given some ground to these pressures by announcing that no serious barriers will be erected to imports from the EU after 31 December even if Britain leaves with no deal. He is evidently taking encouragement from the German accession to the presidency of the EU Council in July, and the known anxiety of German industry for a deal. And the position of Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings – ‘career psychopath’, strident Eurosceptic and mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign – has been weakened by the great public hostility to his own recent breach of the lockdown rules.

On the other hand, standing on stilts, Johnson has strenuously ruled out asking for an extension of the transition period beyond 31 December in order to help break the likely continuing deadlock. This, allied to his notoriety for promising one thing and doing another, as alluded to publicly by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier after the fourth round of talks, fuels suspicion that he is merely allowing Frost to go through the motions of negotiating with Brussels on the future relationship; the purposes being to advertise the unreasonableness of the EU, keep happy as long as possible the powerful interests supporting the need for a deal, and give him leverage in the trade talks with the Americans. This suspicion is further fuelled by the encouragement Johnson receives from the Brexit ultras, who hope the negotiations will fail and are allied to the disaster capitalists who bankroll the Tory Party; these include London-exiled Russian oligarchs, which explains the continued suppression of the Russia Report cleared for publication by the intelligence community as long ago as early last October.

Which of these assessments is the most likely? I don’t know, and Johnson probably doesn’t either. However, my guess is that, distracted by the pandemic and nervous about the reckoning that awaits him in the shape of a certain public inquiry into his catastrophic handling of it, he is simply keeping his options open, winging it as usual. Adept at distraction tactics and anticipating adulation from a too-credulous public, he is probably dreaming of another last-minute announcement of a deal that gains everything he wanted, provided the small print is overlooked. I would not rule it out. He is at heart nothing but a gifted showman.

PS, 16 June 2020. Following a high-level meeting by video-conference on 15 June, which was successful as far as it went and encouraged those hoping for a deal, five rounds of face-to-face talks were ‘pencilled in’ for July and August. Johnson said he wanted the EU to ‘put a tiger in the tank’ of the stalled talks, whereupon the president of the EU Council retorted that they were happy to do this but not to ‘buy a pig in a poke.’ See The Guardian 16 June 2010.

PPS, 30 July 2020. Face-to-face talks in July seem to have improved the possibility of a deal; see Andrew Grice in The Independent, 29 July 2020.