It was always going to be the case that a Brexit deal would require an intervention from Boris Johnson and the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But today’s conversation between the pair is going to have to do more work than either side would have liked. Rather than nudging a deal over the line, this phone call is going to have to give the talks a proper shove.
Von der Leyen has the more difficult task today. Johnson is speaking on his own behalf, von der Leyen is speaking for 27 governments, including one – France – that is publicly threatening to veto any deal it doesn’t like. But if she sticks rigidly to the current EU position, the talks will fail and there’ll be no deal; an outcome that von der Leyen does not want.
What needs to be appreciated is that no deal would not be the continuation of the negotiation by other means. There are those in some EU capitals, notably Paris, who think that a few months of finger-nail border checks, with all the disruption that would bring, would see the UK head back to the table in a more accommodating mood. But this is fundamentally wrong. If the UK went back to the table in these circumstances, it would clearly get a worse deal than the one currently being proposed by the EU. The Johnson government could not survive this politically. So, however difficult dealing with no deal would be, the Johnson government would have to plough on. It could not be the side to back down in these circumstances.
In the next few days, the contours of UK/EU relations for the next decade will be set. The two sides will either find a way to compromise that will enable the UK and the EU to be good neighbours. Or there will be a failure of statecraft that will poison UK/EU relations and cause huge harm to diplomatic, defence and security cooperation.