“This is the first time in history so many people have worked so hard to make the whole situation worse for everybody.”
Those were the words of an EU official to me earlier this week, ahead of a trip for European Commission bureaucrats to London. Yet despite the forsaken rhetoric, there did appear to be a spirit of buoyancy in the Commission’s contingent of negotiators, as they touched town for a cycle of informal talks with UK counterparts.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
And there they arrived – Barnier and company – standing in the lobby of St Pancras International, eyes pursed to the camera as they smiled under their medical masks – an excitable band of EU go-getters with premium-grade suitcases by their sides and thoughts of fishing rights for EU vessels permeating their innermost thoughts.
No doubt their bearing had been softened by the fact that the discussions were charted as a ‘primer’ ahead of the more official negotiations later in July.
And the mission this week had begun promisingly. Ever-the-charmer Barnier was himself thrilled to be acquainted with a menu fashioned for his cultured palate on his arrival at Number 10 on Tuesday evening.
But one does however wonder to what extent Barnier had that evening, when tonguing the pieces of lemon-infused halibut from in between his teeth, already plotted the Commission’s main message to be publicized subsequent to the discussions.
It’s a delicious image: Barnier and UK Chief Negotiator David Frost, sat metres apart from one another along an elongated mahogany table somewhere in the innards of Number 10. The profound silence penetrated by the chime of the Prime Minister’s hallmarked sterling silver cutlery, as a young Commission fonctionnaire sits alone in the corner of the room, impatiently glugging a Diet Coke while feverishly composing the Commission’s press release concerning the divisions still at play.
One such area in which these rifts are particularly pronounced is in fishing rights. While the EU wants to secure access to UK waters for its fishing vessels, unsurprisingly the UK is not entirely happy with this arrangement in the long term.
And such conspicuous discrepancies are edging the Brexit doomsday clock ever-the-closer to midnight. No sooner had the merry band of EU bureaucrats departed from the talks in London this week, did the executive deliver its main message. The Commission despatch from Downing Street was unambiguous: Europe, Get Ready.
The ‘readiness’ communication that the Commission put out on Thursday evening is a diplomatic way of reminding the people on both sides of the English channel that they will soon be absorbed into an administrative quagmire, regardless of whether a trade deal can be contracted between the two parties before the end of the year or not.
“There will be far-reaching and automatic changes and consequences for citizens, consumers, businesses, public administrations, investors, students and researchers, as of 1 January 2021,” the communication notes.
“These changes are unavoidable,” it adds, drawing attention to the end of free mobile roaming, the supplementation of excise duties, and additional border checks. There was even the incendiary rhetoric warning UK holidaymakers that EU pet passports will no longer be valid when they take their four-legged friends to the bloc.
Perhaps even more telling, however, was the format of the document itself, which outlined a taxonomy of areas set to be impacted most by the UK’s impending withdrawal.
Under each heading was a very serene description of the current state of play in the relevant field during the transition period, by which the UK maintains EU rights.
Then, pulsating silently like a predator waiting to strike its prey, a cluster of bold words declare how ‘as of 1 January 2021’…liberties and provisions across such areas for UK citizens will be curtailed. Such meta-analyses only serve to reveal just how desperate the EU is for an extension to the transition period.
Along with fishing rights, agreements on state aid and the ‘level playing field’ are set to be discussed as the informal discussions continue into Brussels next week, with official meetings taking place in London on the week starting 20 July.
Notwithstanding the spirit of joviality this week, the communication from the Commission is clear, leading up to those all-important negotiations: UK and EU Citizens, prepare yourself for a turbulent six months.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.