‘The reality is the talks will blow up shortly’. As I say in the Sun this morning, this is the verdict of one Downing Street figure on the UK / EU negotiations.
The EU might still be finalising its negotiating mandate. But if you read the draft of it and David Frost’s speech this week, it is clear just how far apart the two sides are. This is going to come to a head quickly as the EU line is that there must be agreement on ‘level playing field’ and governance before the talks proper can commence.
If the EU side insists on these preconditions in the opening round of the negotiations, scheduled for the first week of March, then the government will dismiss the talks as pointless.
Downing Street’s hope is that Frost’s speech this week, will make the European side realise that they are serious about not accepting the EU’s pre-conditions.
One insider points out that Boris Johnson doesn’t have to have an election until 2024, so nearly every European leader would pay the price at the ballot box for any economic disruption caused by the failure of these negotiations before he would.
It is not just on the future relationship that the UK and the EU are heading for a row. A figure close to the negotiations says that they are ‘starting to wake up in Brussels to the fact that we have a totally different interpretation of the Irish protocol’.
As I write in the magazine this week, the appointment of Suella Braverman as Attorney-General and Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland Secretary indicates that the government is preparing to take a more abrasive approach on this issue. This will infuriate the EU side who believe that these arrangements have already been agreed.
Interestingly, influential figures on both sides hope that the blow up in the trade talks comes sooner rather than later. Why? Because they think that it is only once the two sides have realised just how far apart they really are, that the serious negotiations can begin.