Back when he was Brexit Secretary, David Davis often spoke about the EU holding out until the “eleventh hour” to do a deal with the UK.
Pointing out that the bloc has a history of doing deals at the last moment, he told The Telegraph in February 2019, ahead of the original March 29 deadline: “They will always let negotiations go to the wire.”
Twenty one months and several missed deadlines later, it seems Brussels is still playing to type.
After Boris Johnson’s fruitless Wednesday night dinner with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, we were told both sides had until December 13 to avoid a no deal. Yet it soon became apparent that that deadline would also be missed.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab took to their airwaves to declare that a “high bar” had been set for negotiations to continue, only for the Prime Minister then to declare that talks would indeed carry on – effectively setting a new deadline of December 31.
With 1,635 days having passed since the UK voted to leave the EU, many could be forgiven for wondering whether both sides always intended to wait until the last possible moment.
For if the chances of a deal now stand at 20 per cent, why not walk away and help businesses fully prepare for an exit on World Trade Association (WTO) terms?
According to one well-placed source, the current stalemate is not just about the negotiation itself but also “blame allocation.”
“This is going to go on until New Year’s Eve because the side that says: ‘Right, that’s it, no more negotiations’ is going to be blamed for no deal. No one wants to be that person. Emmanuel Macron’s primary interest in life is getting reelected, Angela Merkel doesn’t want to be the first person to wreck the EU so that’s part of the reason for the stand off.”
Both sides also know that even if they agree a deal, they then face the inevitable task of having to sell it. For Mr Johnson, this means convincing both party and public that it meets his much-repeated manifesto pledge to give Britain back its sovereignty.
For the EU, it means persuading the EU27 that they haven’t conceded too much ground, not least if Britain ends up doing well post-Brexit. The last thing Brussels wants is other member states to be enticed to follow suit.
Leaving the striking of a deal until the last minutes gives critics on both sides less time to disassemble what has been agreed.
Three months after the 2016 referendum, the EU thought it had struck a watertight trade deal with Canada, only for it to be almost kiboshed at the last minute because of objections by Belgium’s Wallonia region.
Another reason for both sides going the distance is to prove they have negotiated in “good faith”. There are some Brexiteers who believe the Government will have stronger grounds to repudiate the Withdrawal Agreement (beyond the parts singled out by the Internal Market Bill) if no deal is struck.
The revised Political Declaration signed by both sides clearly states that only agreements developed in “good faith” will give effect to the future relationship.
This arguably gives the UK grounds to argue the EU has acted unreasonably in denying the UK a Canada-style deal, not least after EU Council President Donald Tusk himself promised “not just a Canada deal, but a Canada plus plus plus deal” in October 2018.
Hence why Mr Johnson has offered to go back to the negotiating table. As former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith explained: “The UK Government wants to be seen to be going the extra mile so they can say to the British public, and indeed the world: ‘We tried everything the EU isn’t budging’.
“Our ask is very simple and absolutely right. Their ask is indefensible and the optics are going to be very bad for them if they don’t move on this.
“It’s suddenly beginning to dawn on the EU that we won’t back down. Every Prime Minister since Thatcher has caved in but Boris has been very clear from the beginning, Brexit must mean Brexit.”