Brexit Bulletin: Down to business

Brexit Bulletin
Bloomberg

What's Happening? The first face-to-face Brexit talks in months came and went without the customary showmanship.

The striking thing this week has been the absence of any theater. When talks broke up a day early on Thursday there were no press conferences, no photo-ops on the steps of the Berlaymont building in Brussels. Instead, there were just two restrained statements. That's a sign that both sides are finally getting down to business.

Negotiators were more optimistic this week than at any time since the process began, as Ian Wishart noted on Monday. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have persuaded his European counterparts that he is serious about wanting a deal. As one senior U.K. official put it, a deal will now be done because the government has to move on from accusations of "dither and delay" over Brexit.

A view of this week's Brussels negotiations.

Photographer: Lukasz Kobus/European Commission

There is still not much time. An agreement is needed by October so it can be in place in time for the new year. Given that a deadline to extend the transition period came and went this week, that cut off point is real. And, for all the optimism, the disagreements are as big as they ever were — something EU negotiating chief Michel Barnier reiterated on Thursday. Talks will resume in London next week.

Business leaders are increasingly alarmed at what they see as the dire consequences of a failure to reach a trade deal. In a series of reports this week, Joe Mayes set out some of the practical obstacles firms can expect to face, even if a deal is signed. In short, don't think of driving a truck to Dover unless you have permission in advance from the tax man, who will be relying on a yet-to-be-finished computer system. What could possibly go wrong?

The coronavirus pandemic has dominated the past three months, with businesses in the main not focused on Brexit and the barriers to trade it will throw up at the end of the year. The government is planning a "shock and awe" advertising blitz to jolt businesses out of their complacency. This week trade expert Anna Jerzewska offered some ideas for how it should look. At the very least, firms are going to have to follow the example of the negotiators in Brussels and start preparing in earnest.

Edward Evans

Beyond Brexit

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