UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: AFP/BEN STANSALL
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: AFP/BEN STANSALL

Brussels/Brasiliain/Geneva — If UK officials harbour any hope of reaching a post-Brexit deal with the EU quickly or easily, they need only speak to others who have faced the bloc across the table to be disabused.

Negotiators who have worked on other market access deals with the EU describe the process as deeply frustrating. “Europe still tends to see itself as the centre of the universe,” says Aloysio Nunes, who as Brazil’s then foreign minister helped to negotiate the landmark agreement between the EU and Mercosur group of South American countries.

Other diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, are more forthright than Nunes. One described the attitude of European commission teams as condescending, a second said the EU’s executive arm will not shy away from outright manipulation of diplomats on the opposite side of the table, while a third resorted to repeated profanity.

The success of these tactics depends on how much Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually wants a comprehensive deal following Britain’s exit from the EU on January 31. The two sides have not even formally begun thrashing out the terms of their future relationship, but are already at odds: Johnson wants to break free from what he sees as restrictive Brussels rules, while Brussels wants to keep the UK tightly aligned. For the EU, any divergence will cost Britain access to it biggest and closest market.

Trade negotiations have long been notoriously tense events with hard-nosed teams seeking to gain the upper hand behind closed doors. In that respect, the EU simply uses its economic heft to wring out concessions from partners keen for access to a lucrative export market. The risk for the EU, however, is that its demands may be so onerous that Johnson decides against pursuing even a narrow trade deal — a failure that would hurt both economies.

The commission will start talks with the UK on behalf of the EU’s 27 remaining states in February. Diplomats who have worked on accords with the bloc say it tends to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach in negotiations, presenting a template, often copied and pasted from its own previous deals. It then, as one official describes it, tells the opposite side: “We’re big and you are small, so suck it up.”

The UK has already experienced this during the tense talks over its departure from the EU. And the strategy has worked well for Brussels. The terms of Britain’s withdrawal — including the separation bill, citizens’ rights, and the future of Northern Ireland — are all largely based on the commission’s initial proposals.

‘Colonial’ approach

As it negotiates, the EU often presents its ideas as well-intended, aimed at promoting the interests of the other side, according to two officials. “They introduce themselves as nice, civilised negotiators — but they skin you alive,” one of them said. The other lambasted this approach as “colonial”.

One standard manoeuvre from the commission playbook is to demand everything upfront, including full tariff elimination and other concessions, while excluding areas from discussion, citing the sensitivity of EU member states.

“It’s not easy to speak on behalf of so many countries with so many domestic sensitivities,” Brazil’s Nunes admits. These internal considerations, in effect the national interests of big EU member states, can often be used to hold up the process, another official says.

One key area in which Britain may encounter this roadblock is fishing. The EU wants to maintain access to UK waters and says the entire future relationship depends on getting a deal here — an unprecedented demand in trade negotiations according to one European diplomat.

Johnson, on the other hand, has vowed to regain control of UK waters after Brexit. With fishermen being complaint-prone constituencies in both Britain and France, this battle is almost certain to be the big early row. The UK should not budge, one diplomat advises. Giving up fishing immediately, as the EU demands, would amount to relinquishing the single most valuable point of leverage, he noted.

Experienced negotiators

The officials said negotiations with the commission tend to drag on and on, until a deal is eventually reached. But the UK will not have this option because Johnson has ruled out extending the transition period beyond the year-end, whether there is a post-Brexit deal or not.

Extracting a beneficial accord from the EU in such a short timeframe will be a challenge, not least because the commission has decades of experience negotiating trade agreements — most recently with Canada, Japan and the Mercosur countries.

The UK, on the other hand, like all EU member states, had outsourced the task of trade negotiations to the commission and it lacks institutional memory, as well as sufficiently experienced staff, in this area.

“Europeans are tough negotiators,” Nunes says. That may be an understatement.

Bloomberg