Brexit trade talks trap Boris Johnson in no-deal final moment

British leader has not built European relationships that matter

TOPSHOT - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) in the Berlaymont building at the EU headquarters in Brussels on December 9, 2020, prior to a post-Brexit talks' working dinner. EU chief Ursula von der Leyen welcomed Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson to her headquarters in Brussels on December 9, 2020, for talks on saving post-Brexit trade negotiations. At Johnson's suggestion, he and von der Leyen removed their anti-Covid facemasks briefly and posed for photographers at the Berlaymont building before heading in for a working dinner. / AFP / POOL / Olivier HOSLET
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Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday that the country's talks with the EU over a post-Brexit trade pact would reach a moment of finality this weekend.

A crunch meeting between Boris Johnson and the EU's Ursula von der Leyen the previous evening failed to produce a breakthrough after a tumultuous week in which the negotiators positions hardened.

"We are rapidly approaching the point where we need some finality," Mr Raab said the morning after.

The reality of a no-deal is sinking in in London and Brussels. The EU put forward its contingency measures for trade disruption and travel chaos. A meeting of all the permanent secretaries of British government departments was convened last Monday in what is likely to have been the start of British preparations.

For the British leader, an oven-ready deal he promised exactly a year ago to triumph in a general election contest appears to be turning to ashes. If so, it is a very personal disaster.

Two decades ago when Mr Johnson was a newspaper journalist, he worked from the press room of the Berlaymont headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. Indeed, he wrote an article reporting it was to be blown up in a demolition that never happened.

Critics said Mr Johnson's late intervention did not disguise the lack of effort he put into sealing an agreement with Britain's biggest marketplace to keep in place free trade at the end of the transition period this month.

Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the EU who resigned in 2017 over London's strategy, told Politico that Mr Johnson had no personal traction with his European counterparts.

“If I were advising someone who actively wanted a deal, I would have been advising him to get heavily engaged in serious face-to-face discussions at top level very much earlier," he said.

"If I were advising someone who did not much care about a deal but wanted to be seen by the British public to have tried his utmost, then I might be doing my first serious face-to-face meeting with the Commission president this week.”

Mr Johnson may have thought he could pull Ms Von der Leyen closer to his position. The pair had overlapped as pupils of the same Brussels school in 1973-1974. However, like a prefect to an unruly pupil, she was upbraiding him at the photo opportunity on Wednesday night to keep his Covid-secure face mask on.

Mr Johnson's team decided to approach Ms Von der Leyen late last week after progress made in talks with her deputy chief of staff Stephanie Riso, who briefly led the negotiations, was abruptly reversed by the return to the table of chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

With the soon-to-retire German Chancellor Angela Merkel reluctant to intervene, it appeared to London that Mr Barnier and French President Emmanuel Macron had teamed up as the hammer and anvil of the talks against the British.

Even countries normally sympathetic to the UK, such as the Netherlands, fell in line with Paris. Officials worry that there is no landing zone for Mr Johnson to target.

Business is in despair both that the talks are in extra time but also that the real-world preparations for the erection of trade barriers are still not in high gear. "There must come a time in the negotiations when both sides know that compromises cannot be reached," said Paul Hardy, head of government affairs in London at law firm DLA Piper.

"To keep on negotiating through fear of being blamed for causing no-deal is reckless – it will make a difficult adjustment for so many businesses even harder."

Jill Rutter, an expert at the Institute of Government, said the long-term strategic failure of the trade deal talks would go far beyond economic harm.

“I think down the line, both sides may regret not trying to think more constructively about what a really good, healthy relationship for an exit UK and the EU might look like,” she said.