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World Brexit Talks Haunted by the Fear One Person Could Thwart a Deal

08:50  31 october  2020
08:50  31 october  2020 Source:   bloomberg.com

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(Bloomberg) -- The chief negotiators of the U.K. and European Union may have hatched a plan to give a post-Brexit trade deal one last shot, but one man could yet stand in their way.

a man looking at the camera: Dominic Cummings, special adviser to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, departs from his home in London, U.K., on Friday, May 29, 2020. The prime minister’s key aide is mired in a spiraling scandal where he's accused of breaking the country’s lockdown rules, the same ones he helped craft. © Bloomberg Dominic Cummings, special adviser to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, departs from his home in London, U.K., on Friday, May 29, 2020. The prime minister’s key aide is mired in a spiraling scandal where he's accused of breaking the country’s lockdown rules, the same ones he helped craft.

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s powerful chief adviser, has largely been absent from the discussions in Downing Street about Brexit since the Conservative party’s election victory in December as the government grappled with the coronavirus and its overhaul of the civil service. Yet his influence looms large.

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With a deal in sight -- but likely to require major concessions from Britain to achieve it -- EU officials still fear the architect of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign could make one final dramatic and disruptive intervention. Two weeks ago, Cummings was back, pushing Johnson to leave the talks without an agreement, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

The end of 2020 will bring the curtain down on four years of negotiations between Britain and the bloc it was part of since 1973. Failure to reach a deal, which would include arrangements for trade, security, fishing, energy and transport cooperation, would lead to a severe rupture that could damage U.K.’s relations with the EU for years. Yet among Johnson’s group of Cummings-approved advisers, some see the attraction of a clean break and the political freedom it would bring.

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Delicately Poised

While the negotiations are still delicately poised, both sides hope to announce a breakthrough next week. Johnson and his chief negotiator, David Frost, want an agreement and are confident they will get one, according to people familiar with the deliberations. EU officials are hopeful, but slightly less positive because they find the U.K. government’s strategy difficult to read.

“A negotiated outcome remains our clear preference, and we welcome this intense period of talks,” Downing Street said in a statement on Friday.

As dozens of exhausted diplomats shuttle between London and Brussels after eight months of at times fractious discussions, conversations can veer toward political intrigue. Privately they speculate about how events will play out as the finishing line approaches.

Working from dawn until well past nightfall seven days a week, they think they are on track to secure a positive outcome but, if they are looking for a boogeyman to add to the drama, the mysterious and unpredictable Cummings fits the bill -- even if they lack hard evidence of his involvement.

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Michel Barnier signalled a tough line as he gave details of the Brussels stance in the looming talks . The EU's chief negotiator today warned that Brexit will be be painful as he insisted the UK will have to abide by the bloc's terms. That had to be settled before a future trade deal could be considered.

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For EU officials, his character is as old as politics itself: the puppet-master in the shadows dripping words into the ear of the leader. One senior EU diplomat close to the Brexit negotiations drew from Shakespeare, describing Cummings as the ghost at the feast, a reference to the haunting figure in Macbeth. Even as the talks make progress, those at the table are aware he is looking over them and could yet spoil their achievements, the diplomat said.


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Imagined Threat?

The threat might be more imagined than real. Insiders say Frost, who also has the ear of the prime minister, was irritated by the lack of progress in the negotiations but still persuaded Johnson in the second half of October that a deal was preferable and -- just as important -- attainable. He had worked with his European opposite number, Michel Barnier, on a route to an agreement that would require both sides to make compromises.

That’s why, after Johnson went on television on Oct. 16 to warn that Britain should prepare to end the year without a trade deal, negotiations resumed with renewed vigor six days later.

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Yet in EU circles, officials still aren’t convinced. They are worried about Cummings’s unpredictability and the power he wields over a prime minister distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.

One EU diplomat said that officials in Europe who think the two sides will reach an agreement are underestimating Cummings’ desire to leave without one because it would allow the U.K. to keep blaming the EU for the negative economic consequences of Brexit.

Much of the EU’s concern stems from the bruises that remain from the negotiations with Johnson over the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU after he became prime minister in 2019. With his predecessor, Theresa May -- whom Cummings attacked in a series of blog posts when he was outside government -- the EU knew what they were getting. With the current administration, they fear that, if Cummings is steering government strategy, he’s just as likely to cause a head-on crash than to swerve at the last minute.

Twitter Jab

EU officials allege he was responsible for briefings to the press after Johnson held a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2019 saying that because of her intransigence, a Brexit divorce deal was effectively impossible. That one was then done nine days later, with Cummings seemingly overruled, does little to assuage their anxiety.

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Exposing their obsession, EU officials couldn’t resist a gleeful dig after allegations surfaced in May that Johnson’s top adviser ignored the government’s own lockdown rules when he drove more than 250 miles to his parents’ property in northeast England to get childcare for his four-year-old son.

Donald Tusk, European Council president until last December and one of the EU’s most vocal critics of Brexit, took a a virtually unprecedented swipe at an unelected adviser.

“This is apparently Cummings and his Brexit friends’ rule,” he tweeted. “That they leave when they should stay.”

In Brussels, Cummings remains one of the biggest concerns. Irrespective of what progress is made in the negotiating room, for EU officials, the threat that he could derail any deal will remain until the very moment one is signed.

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Final spurt in the Brexit trade pact .
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not achieve a breakthrough in a conversation about the Brexit trade pact. © Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire / dpa The Brexit transition phase will end in less than two months. Then Great Britain will leave the EU internal market and the customs union. There has been progress recently, but there are still significant differences, they said after a phone call.

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