History always repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. We seem to have both when it comes to Brexit. The U.K. is once again threatening to walk away from trade terms it signed with the European Union, lambasting them as unworkable despite having signed up to them in 2019. The EU, even as it insists renegotiation is impossible, is throwing out concessions like confetti to keep the Brits on-side. And all the while, time and energy that could have been spent on bigger issues, like climate change, is wasted.

Optimistic onlookers will tell themselves things are getting better, and every little de-escalation helps. For all the inflammatory language and threats vented by Boris Johnson’s top Brexit official, David Frost, there’s an openness to hearing Brussels’ proposals. And on the European side, offers to reduce red tape are focused on easing trade barriers in Northern Ireland, especially where food is concerned, rather than divisive asks such as the removal of the European Court of Justice as an oversight body.

But this divorce still looks a long way from becoming constructive. The Brits will inevitably be back for more – and when they do, the EU needs to ask itself whose interests are really served by this back-and-forth.

What the U.K. presents as an issue of practical implementation of post-Brexit Irish trade terms is seen in EU quarters as a refusal to implement them at all — supported by Johnson’s own threat to only allow goods checks over his dead body. Concessions don’t wipe away the presence of a border in the Irish Sea. The Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, which represents local businesses, has cautiously welcomed the new proposals; the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party says they fall a “long way short”.

Trade experts warn the proposals look like a starting-point for discussion rather than a revolution. Still, the U.K.’s long-running approach to Brexit talks, combining bluster and extreme threats, is being reinforced. It’s worked too many times — from “no-deal” brinkmanship to last year’s “limited and specific” breach threat — for it to disappear. The worse things get at home, from labor shortages to Covid criticisms, the more useful the EU scapegoating; moreover, Brexit has brought direct costs to the U.K. without corresponding benefits (such as a U.S. trade deal or financial-sector deregulation). 

“There’s a natural need to keep pushing against the constraints of the deal,” France’s former ambassador to the EU, Pierre Sellal, tells me. Give Brexiters a millimeter, and they’ll take a (suitably Imperial) mile.

For now, the concessions seem manageable in the eyes of member states, and one hopes the Commission’s ECJ red line will stick. The EU itself has stepped on a few rakes in handling trade, such as during the Covid vaccine wars, and wants to rebuild some trust on the ground in Northern Ireland. But even taking all this into account, the scalpel wielded by the Commission — lifting as much as half of customs checks and almost all sanitary checks on food imports, by its calculation — could eventually risk cutting through the deal’s fat and hitting muscle. Officials grumble of “blood on the floor” in bending rules. The EU risks sacrificing its own internal unity for the sake of the U.K.’s.

It is not enough for Brussels’ technocrats to want to be the “adults in the room” at a time when the Brexiters are whipping up public opinion and eyeing divergence from data-protection rules.  At some point the U.K.’s bluff is going to have to be called. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, is taking a stab at this: On Wednesday, he leaped on tweets by Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings supporting the idea that the U.K.’s aim was to go back on trade terms the moment they were signed. “The message must go out to all countries around the world that this is a British government that doesn’t necessarily keep its word,” he told RTE. If that means contingency planning for a tariff war, so be it.

What makes this tricky for the EU isn’t just about legal niceties but about the bloc’s political willingness to defend its interests in a world where international relations are increasingly conflictual. The Brexiters dream of a world where treaties can be rewritten at the drop of a sausage, and where the EU’s ability to uphold the rule of law is undermined. They’re not alone: EU members Poland and Hungary are challenging the bloc’s ability to punish them for eroding democratic values. These are dangerous times for a bloc that is itself a “law-state,” as Professor R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University puts it; without the legal underpinning of its treaties, integration could go into reverse.

The EU has plenty of existential post-Brexit issues it needs to grapple with: Will it pursue deeper transatlantic ties, tread an independent path in the name of “strategic autonomy,” or break apart into concentric circles of integration? Either way, the next time Lord Frost begins to ask for more EU concessions “or else,” the bloc should politely but firmly put the single market first. Otherwise it’s the fate of its own union, not Boris Johnson’s, that will hang in the balance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

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