The need to keep on going the extra mile - Scotsman comment

After nine months of stalemate, missed deadlines and false dawns, both sides in the long-running saga of post-Brexit trade talks at last arrived at some sort of rapprochement yesterday: they agreed to keep talking (again).

Boris Johnson is welcomed by Ursula von der Leyen at the EU headquarters in Brussels last week.
Boris Johnson is welcomed by Ursula von der Leyen at the EU headquarters in Brussels last week.

With the latest final deadline of 13 December about to pass, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen found common cause by agreeing that the responsible course of action was to “go the extra mile” and keep trying to break the deadlock this week.

Perhaps the unedifying prospect over the weekend of the Royal Navy being deployed to patrol coastal waters helped focus minds on both sides of the Channel. Fisheries are one of the three sticking points between the two sides, with the EU wanting to continue to maximise access to UK waters and the British arguing that as an independent coastal state its fleet should be prioritised.

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Negotiations are also stalled on so-called "level playing field" rules. The EU seeks a high degree of alignment on workers' rights, the environment and state aid, while Mr Johnson is wary of the UK being treated as the bloc's "twin".

The third stumbling block, governance, is over who is ultimately in charge, with the UK adamant that as an independent sovereign state it cannot accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

That the two sides appear as far apart as ever on reaching a consensus in these areas at such a late stage is cause for major concern. The impact of a no-deal Brexit would be profound, with an end to free trade and punitive tariffs on imports and exports just as the economy is trying to find its feet after an unprecedented battering caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the clock ticks relentlessly towards 31 December, and with yet more time needing set aside for MPs and MEPs to vote on any deal, there is surely no longer any room at the negotiating table for bluff, bluster and brinkmanship.

At the end of a year in which the world seems almost to have been knocked off its axis, perhaps the best outcome this week might be an acknowledgement on both sides that the “extra mile” for a deal to be struck could be extended as far into 2021 as necessary.