Interview: No news from talks could mean good news, says Brexit expert

As British negotiators are currently in Brussels for intensified talks with their European Union (EU) counterparts, this week’s talks were preceded by a warning of the need to make “big progress” to avert a possible no-deal situation.

Against a backdrop of the EU team’s departure from London last week with little news of progress, David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast, told Xinhua that no-news might not necessarily mean that developments were not happening.

“There’s been so little coming out of the negotiations. It’s gotten very, very quiet, which in many respects is good, because they’re very focused,” Phinnemore said in a recent interview.

“They don’t want any media noise around what’s happening. I think this week’s (negotiation) obviously (is) going to be really important, because we are, and again, people say we keep repeating this, we’re getting towards the final point by which you need an agreement so that it can come into force in January (2021),” he said.

Both London and Brussels acknowledged that there are still big gaps between them on such sticking points as fisheries, state aid and dispute settlement mechanism.

According to Phinnemore, Britain and the EU are really “up against it” in terms of reaching an agreement in time for it to be ratified by the European Parliament. He is looking to this week’s negotiations as crucial for predicting a deal or no deal.

“What they are all flagging is that there are still outstanding issues, particularly on fish, level playing fields etc … And now this issue of whether there should be a ratchet clause, which would mean that UK standards might have to develop in line with the EU’s, but that may just be a negotiating ploy on the part of the EU,” he said.

“It’s difficult to say, but with the negotiations still going, I think they obviously believe there is the prospect of getting a deal,” he added.

But there are also a number of factors that took place last week, both internationally and closer to home, that could hold significant bearing on the way British Prime Minister Boris Johnson approaches the latest Britain-EU negotiations.

Last week, two top advisors of Johnson’s government, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, who were known for holding a strong position on Britain leaving the EU at all costs, resigned.

Phinnemore said that he believes the fact that two such influential figures behind the Leave Campaign were now out could affect the way Johnson approaches the next round of negotiations with the EU.

“There’s a sense that it gives them a little bit more leeway,” he said. “Because both Cain and Cummings are very much associated with the hardest form of Brexit and might have been in the sort of the No Deal camp who wouldn’t have been too concerned, at least by terms of media reports, about the possibility of these negotiations not leading to a deal.”

“But I think as far as Johnson is concerned, all the indications are from around him that he should really be aiming for a deal. So in some respects, the voices are still there but they’re obviously not as influential as they were before,” he noted.

Much of Britain’s post-Brexit campaign has been looking at building new deals and relationships with countries outside of the EU, and the United States has been pipped as one of the key partners to have a trade deal.

Although Phinnemore believes that securing a deal with the EU is at the forefront of the British government’s mind, he believes that there will be some in the government who are paying attention to the rhetoric coming out of the U.S. side in terms of their opinion on Brexit.

“If the UK is committed to further to engaging with the EU constructively then there could be value for the U.S. in having a close relationship with the UK,” he said.

“I think that there is a sense that to minimize the disruption that we’re already seeing as a consequence of COVID-19, you really do need to get an agreement in place with the EU,” he said.

The coronavirus-related deaths in Britain rose by 598 to 52,745, marking the highest daily number of fatalities since May 6, according to official figures released Tuesday.

The data also showed that another 20,051 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 1,410,732.

As Brexit talks continue and the deadline comes ever closer, Phinnemore still believes that Johnson’s “natural inclination will be to try and get a deal,” but compromises may have to be made.