It is now more than nine months since Britain left the EU and embarked on a new course.
For now, little has changed. The country remains inside the EU’s single market and customs union, trade is unimpeded and free movement of people is still in place. But it is a temporary state of affairs that is soon to come to an end.
The UK’s post-Brexit transition period expires on December 31, bringing with it a cliff edge, regardless of the outcome of future-relationship talks. Just how steep this is will depend on the endgame that is now under way with the two sides’ trade negotiations.
This is when the future relationship talks began, with a first round in Brussels. That week was supposed to set the pattern for what would follow: an alternation of rounds between Westminster and The Square, a conference centre in the Belgian capital’s central Mont Des Arts district.
What few imagined at the time was that the round would be the last physical meeting of the negotiating teams for months. The second round, scheduled for March 16, was shelved as Europe went into coronavirus lockdown. On March 19, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier announced that he had tested positive, and went into self-isolation.
The show started getting back on the road. Mr Barnier spoke with UK chief negotiator David Frost, leading to an agreement to restart a limited version of the talks. Virtual rounds were also organised in an attempt to get negotiations back on track.
The high level meeting: Boris Johnson spoke with EU institutional leaders via videoconference, the outcome being an agreement to intensify talks throughout the month of July. Mr Johnson urged the EU to “put a tiger in the tank” while the EU’s Charles Michel refused to buy a “pig in a poke”.
One of the pivotal moments in the future-relationship talks because of what did not happen.
June 30 was the legal deadline for Britain to request an extension to its post-Brexit transition period, something Mr Johnson decided not to do despite the economic turmoil engulfing the UK because of Covid-19.
July 1 was also a day of missed deadlines. The political declaration that forms part of Mr Johnson’s Brexit agreement with the EU committed both sides to seek a deal by then on access to UK fishing waters for European fishermen. Instead, the issue remains one of the most difficult on the table and forms a core part of the negotiating endgame.
Similarly, the two sides had a target to reach decisions on access to each other’s financial services markets by this date. Brussels sees this as another source of leverage in the talks, and virtually all the access decisions are still pending.
The Financial Times broke the news that the UK was planning new legislation that would override key parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to the Northern Ireland protocol.
The move — which is still going through the UK parliament — caused a crisis in the talks with the European Commission immediately launching legal action. The EU said the attempt to override the Brexit treaty was not only an infringement of international law but one that threatened the Northern Ireland peace process.
For now the parts of the internal market bill relating to customs arrangements and state aid in Northern Ireland remain in play but could potentially be eliminated if the two sides agree a trade deal in the coming days.
Mr Johnson suspended the future-relationship negotiations, saying that the EU was not serious about the talks.
The UK government pointed to the outcome of an EU summit that took place on October 15-16, seizing on the decision of diplomats to alter the wording of the meeting’s draft conclusions to remove a reference to intensifying Brexit talks.
EU officials insisted that the move was not intended as a slight towards the UK, but Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte acknowledged it had been a communications mistake.
Mr Johnson said talks could continue only if there were a “fundamental” rethink on the EU side.
EU leaders at the summit including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron said that both sides should be willing to compromise to get a deal, but that the EU would not sacrifice vital interests, including its fishing sector.
On the EU side, there is a general understanding that the ratification of a deal starts to become technically challenging if a deal is not reached by the end of November.
Officials are already exploring options for allowing a deal to be ratified in 2020 without it needing to be translated into all of the bloc’s 24 official languages.
But any text would need to be thoroughly legally checked for errors and unforeseen legal consequences — a process known as scrubbing.
The week of the European Parliament’s last plenary session before the end of the year. The ratification vote on a trade deal is pencilled in for this week, so giving the assembly’s committees’ the maximum time to scrutinise the text before a vote.
But this does mean that the UK’s new economic relationship with the EU will not be legally settled until barely two weeks before it is supposed to kick in.
MEPs have made clear that the assembly is willing to organise an extra voting sessions at the end of the year, possibly on December 29 or December 30, to vote on the deal.
When the clock strikes midnight in Brussels (11pm in Britain), the UK’s transition period ends and with it the country’s membership of the single market and customs union.
No one knows for now whether that will usher in a new relationship based on a trade deal preserving tariff-free, quota-free trade in goods, or whether only basic World Trade Organization arrangements will apply. But, either way, it will be a big change.
Brussels has hinted at adopting some contingency measures should a deal not be in place, but these would be unilateral steps not the “mini deals” often mooted by UK politicians. These would do things such as temporarily preserve basic air transport links and grant temporary permissions for hauliers to cross the channel.
But what is clear is that even with a deal in place there is likely to be major disruption as new border arrangements come into force.
EU diplomats note that one of the ironies of a no-deal scenario is that talks would in all likelihood continue, probably after a cooling-off period, to try to patch up some kind of relationship.
Many point to the fact that Australia itself is currently in the process of negotiating a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU. Even Canberra does not like the “Australia model”.