Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/MOLLY DARLINGTON
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/MOLLY DARLINGTON

You might think UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — coping unimpressively with the Covid-19 pandemic and related disasters — has enough to worry about. But there’s also the small matter of Brexit. To remind, this involves the complete upheaval of Britain’s trading arrangements a little more than four months from now.

By this point, Johnson’s government had hoped to have new trade deals with the EU, US and numerous other partners either nailed down or close to it. No such luck. A promised deal with Japan looks closest to completion, but significant obstacles remain. After year’s end the UK will no longer be covered by the existing agreement between the EU and Japan. Businesses on both sides are desperate to end years of policy uncertainty and avoid disruption to their operations.

That could have been accomplished by simply adopting the provisions of the existing EU-Japan agreement, but both sides wanted to go further. Japan has sought concessions on automotive tariffs, digital trade and investor protections that it couldn’t achieve in talks with Europe. UK negotiators have been eager to show they could win greater market access for British goods and services. The two sides apparently made progress — until discussions ran aground over cheese.

By now, a deal with the US should also have been completed. Again, the talks are dragging out. Though there’s blame on both sides, the fault lies mainly with the UK, which is seeking to maintain EU-like restrictions on US farm exports. Brexit was a chance to shed such restrictions, otherwise, what was the point?

Britain’s difficulty in both these negotiations is weakening its position in the most important trade talks of all — with the EU. Both sides want to reach an agreement by early October, to leave time for ratification in their parliaments, and both have much to lose if that deadline is missed. Both have given some ground. But London’s failure to make progress elsewhere, or even to lay out a clear strategy for the kinds of deals it wants, will incline Europe towards driving a harder bargain. /New York, August 20

Bloomberg

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