The unofficial 15 November deadline will pass this coming Sunday, but both sides continue their talks. At the same time, personnel changes in Downing Street have created headlines over recent hours. But more importantly, there is still at least about a month left for both sides to finalize a deal in time for a 1 January start. The departure of several senior government advisors from the arch-Brexiteer camp might be seen as positive for a deal in the short term and a more pragmatic government agenda over the medium term. However, the focus on flamboyant individuals should not distract from the structural tensions within this “new” Conservative party. It still unites socially conservative pro-Brexit voters and economic liberals who would probably choose EU trade over issues of sovereignty.
In terms of the timeline, the once-planned special European Council meeting in Berlin has been replaced with a videoconference gathering scheduled for 19 November focused on managing the pandemic. This would offer yet another opportunity to sign off on a deal. But even if talks drag on for another four weeks, EU leaders could still assess the eventual result at their regular summit on 10-11 December. The European Parliament will enter its last 2020 week in session on the following Monday, 14 December and could then sign-off on any deal previously endorsed by leaders in the Council.
In the meantime, the main issues holding up the talks remain the same. In this context, this week’s decision by the House of Lords to scrap the most controversial clauses of the UK internal market bill, was relevant. But as highlighted previously, the more important moment will arrive when the altered bill returns to the Commons in early December. PM Boris Johnson has indicated that he would bring back the bill in its original version, i.e., including the clauses that had angered the EU and which the Lords have now scrapped. But these intentions may be overridden by progress in the EU talks in the meantime.
The same logic – progress in the trade talks defusing some of the tensions created by domestic UK legislation – may also apply to the upcoming UK finance bill. For now, the UK government intends to utilize this bill to give itself the unilateral right to declare which British exports are “at risk” of being exported further into the EU single market from Northern Ireland. But as with the internal market bill, progress towards the establishment and the governance of a zero tariffs/quotas deal with the EU may be just what is required to sort out many of these problems.
Northern Ireland, therefore, remains a crucial issue as the future relationship talks continue. However, this is the case notwithstanding opposition from the next US administration to any move that could undermine the Good Friday agreement – another topic that has created headlines this week. Even without US pressure, the UKgovernment still faces the same, basic trade-off: if it wants a deal with the EU, it will have to remove the internal market bill’s most contentious parts – not because of the outcome of the US election, but because Brussels continues to insist on it as a precondition.