LONDON — The Brexit stock-take summit was all about rhetorical style over substance.
Boris Johnson said he told EU leaders on a video call the two sides should “put the tiger in the tank” — a throwback to the old Esso petrol adverts, meaning to refuel with something powerful.
He added, to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and European Parliament President David Sassoli, that talks needed some “oomph.”
The prime minister tried to inject a bit of his own oomph after the meeting, saying in a TV clip that the two sides are not so far apart and a deal is possible within the next six weeks.
“What we already said today is the faster we can do this the better, we see no reason why you shouldn’t get that done in July,” he declared. “I certainly don’t want to see it going on until the [fall]/winter as I think perhaps in Brussels they would like.”
The proposal will have come as a surprise to his EU interlocutors: it was not discussed at the meeting.
While leaders did agree negotiators could reach “an early understanding” of the principles underpinning an agreement, no accelerated timetable was agreed.
What’s more, Johnson’s July timescale was all the more perplexing because the two sides already agreed negotiating dates for August. “That instinct to say something silly about EU talks for domestic consumption is still there,” quipped David Henig, director of the European Centre For International Political Economy.
“It’s what we’ve been saying for a while,” a U.K. official insisted. “The process can’t drag into the [fall] because businesses need certainty about trading arrangements at the end of the year.”
It was Michel who made the reality clear — albeit with a confusing mixed metaphor: “Ready to put a tiger in the tank but not to buy a pig in a poke. Level playing field is essential.”
The comment highlighted that the two sides remain along way apart on big issues of substance, like fisheries and the so-called “level playing field” rules to reduce unfair competition on state aid and standards.
In a joint statement released after Monday afternoon’s summit, both sides said ongoing negotiations between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost had been “constructive,” but added: “The parties agreed nevertheless that new momentum was required.” Talks during July and August will take place every week.
The high-level summit was conceived as a stock-take ahead of the July 1 deadline to agree an extension to the Brexit transition period, which ends on December 31. But Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove took the bite out of it when he formally confirmed at a meeting of the Joint Committee on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement last week that London will not seek extra time.
Britain also lowered the stakes two weeks ago when it confirmed it would continue discussions through the summer. In its negotiating objectives published in February, it vowed to ditch talks and focus on no-deal preparations if not enough progress had been made by the June summit.
The fact that no tangible progress has been made at all confirms the U.K. has U-turned on its tough stance — which could bode well for making progress in the coming weeks. Other climbdowns (on publishing a legal text on fish, watering down planned border checks once the transition period ends, and granting the EU access to data on British-based criminal suspects) suggest a sense of realism is creeping into the process.
The new deadlines have been laid out: Whatever Johnson says, the U.K. is eyeing September as a rough landing ground for an agreement, while the EU points to the end of October to allow time for ratification.
Observers expect talks to go down to the wire either way. Some also expect an implementation period that could allow for ratification and for businesses to prepare. The concession on border checks means the U.K. has already created its own implementation period of sorts.
So the next few months are likely to feature more rhetorical flourishes from both sides with little substance until the end. But with Brexit, does anyone expect anything less?