Britain’s claim that the EU introduced new demands last week is more than dubious, but the two sides are stuck on the three outstanding issues of fisheries, the level playing field and governance.
Boris Johnson’s decision to press ahead with restoring treaty-breaking clauses to the Internal Market Bill on Monday is a provocation that some feared could capsize the talks. To make matters worse, Downing Street says the government will press ahead this week with a taxation bill that would also breach the withdrawal agreement.
But as Simon Coveney indicated in an interview with RTÉ Radio on Sunday, the EU has decided to ignore the legislative antics at Westminster, confident that the offending clauses will be removed before a deal is agreed.
“Instead of being distracted by those two pieces of legislation, I think the EU and the UK negotiators need to focus on getting a deal here that’s in the interests of both sides,” he said.
“I think that the problem linked to those pieces of legislation may find a way of disappearing if we can get the negotiation agreed on the substance of the issues.”
This gives the negotiators more time to work on the outstanding issues, so that Monday’s call between Johnson and president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is another stage in the negotiations rather than a deadline for their conclusion. If there is a new deadline it is probably Wednesday; a day before the European Council is due to meet.
The EU has room for manoeuvre on fisheries, not least because it can compensate its fishermen for some of their lost catch and ease the transition into new arrangements.
Britain can afford to move on governance, agreeing to tougher sanctions in return for more flexibility on the level playing field.
It is on the level playing field that each side will find it hardest to compromise. For the EU protecting the single market from unfair competition has always been a central aim of the negotiations as it limits the damage from Brexit.
But for Johnson, any deal that appears to require Britain to continue to shadow EU rules is unacceptable – which is why he sought such a narrow deal rather than one more valuable to the British economy.
Johnson needs this week’s negotiations to end in a deal. The only question is how expensive he has made it for himself, and whether it is a price he can afford to pay.