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Geopolitics

Brexit Deadline: Time For The EU To Call Boris Johnson's Bluff

London is using the fishing issue in hopes of breaking the EU's united front.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators in central London
Anti-Brexit demonstrators in central London
Étienne Lefebvre

-OpEd-

PARIS — The UK and EU are going from crunch time to overtime in their drawn-out Brexit talks — exactly as the British government had planned. This is what they sought from the start, this moment when everything is tense, when the pressure rises in the European capitals, putting solidarity between member states to the test.

Since the referendum on leaving the EU four and a half years ago, London's tactic has been the same: pushing negotiations to the limit to divide the European camp, and trying to secure last-minute arrangements and late-night compromises that would ultimately allow the UK to regain its full sovereignty while maintaining privileged access to the European single market, on which it desperately depends.

But these contradictory demands conflict with the requirements set forth by the 27 member states, which oppose the UK enjoying commercial advantages without a guarantee of fair competition. The EU has drawn red lines, and it must stick to them to the end, despite the threat of a "no deal," which would be a failure.

It's also the case that taking a firm stance against the UK has yielded results. London even had to give up its initial dream of remaining in the single market while leaving the EU. Regardless of whether agreement on the future trade relationship is made in the coming hours, it will be a "hard Brexit", with new material and legal constraints implemented between Calais and Dover from Jan. 1.

Boris Johnson on the phone with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen — Photo: Andrew Parsons/Avalon/Avalon via ZUMA Press

Still, Europe can't afford to let the UK deregulate everything on its doorstep. In particular, mechanisms for supervising state subsidies must be established. The last few meters of the negotiations race seemed the hardest to endure these past few days. It's all been very technical, but essential, because without clear safeguards, disputes would surely multiply in the future. The UK and the EU must therefore avoid any shaky compromise, especially as Boris Johnson doesn't inspire great confidence in his European counterparts.

Against this front — which has so far been united — the British prime minister has used and abused his best argument: fishing. It's a strong symbolic issue for a UK that's now "freed" from Europe, even if, from an economic perspective, it's a fairly marginal matter. But it's also one of the rare subjects that's likely to divide the 27: The coastal countries that depend on British waters are obviously more inclined than the others to risk the "no deal" option on this question, with the survival of their fishermen at stake.

In other words, the UK is still trying to crack the opposing camp. As we near the finish line, Europe shouldn't be afraid to say "no" to a bad deal.

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