A barely noticeable flicker ticked the poker faces of the Brexit negotiators when they abandoned their end of talks so-called deadline last Sunday, and an apparent threat of gunboat diplomacy. Now they have opted to continue working towards a deal.
It is not ruled out that the extended talks could last beyond the Christmas period and possibly right up to New Year’s Eve, the absolute final day for the year-long British transition period before it parts ways forever with the European Union, deal or no deal.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told member states that even if a deal is reached with the U.K. in the coming days there could be a short no-deal period at the beginning of January. That would be because both sides would have run out of time to implement their own legal procedures even to bring the treaty into force provisionally on January 1.
Both sides remained tight-lipped as to what they have achieved except to emphasize that outstanding differences remain and they will be serious and difficult to overcome.
Nevertheless, the fact that they extended the deadline prompted cautious optimism.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin, who welcomed the decision by Brussels and London to continue negotiating, said he was more hopeful than optimistic.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who last week trumpeted that Britain was fully prepared to go it alone within days without the EU, said on Sunday that while his country is still ready for a no-deal outcome to the trade talks it is prepared not to walk away, and “where there’s life there’s hope.”
Britain’s threats to operate gunboats against French fishermen in the absence of a deal was also viewed as bluster by EU negotiators.
Whatever the outcome of the inch-by-inch British exit talks there is no threat to the Northern Ireland protocol which guarantees security for the peace agreement and no hard border.
At one stage the protocol was endangered when Britain threatened to breach an international law. But the threat was removed by the British government last week after President-elect Joe Biden said the Irish border must be kept open.
The trade talks which appeared doomed were salvaged to an extent on Sunday following a phone conversation between Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Their conversation took place as TV news bulletins showed footage of queues of lorries up to 20 kilometers long at continental ports and loaded with goods bound for Britain before its January 1 EU exit date.
Von der Leyen said, “Despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile.
“We have accordingly mandated our negotiators to continue the talks and to see whether an agreement can even at this late stage be reached.”
Johnson said in a televised statement, “We’re going to continue to try. And we’re going to try with all our hearts and be as creative as we possibly can, but what we can’t do is compromise on that fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about, which is us being able to control our laws, control our fisheries.”
By Monday, van der Leyen said she was able to express satisfaction over the extended talks on a post-Brexit trade pact.
She told a conference arranged by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “First of all there is movement. That is good. We are talking about a new beginning with old friends.”