This is not the Brexit endgame Boris Johnson expected. 

Thursday was supposed to be the U.K. prime minister’s make-or-break moment for reaching a trade deal with the European Union before the transition period ends on Dec. 31. Without an agreement by then, both sides should just “move on,” he said last month. It was part of a hardball strategy that also involved a proposed law that set the U.K. on course to breach the Brexit departure terms it agreed to barely a year ago.

Yet as with previous attempts by Johnson to split the EU’s 27 members — notably France and Germany, the “bad” and “good” cops of Brexit — it backfired.

European leaders gathered in Brussels decided that as far as Brexit was concerned there wasn’t much to discuss after all. They agreed they would keep negotiating on the same basis as before, and called on the U.K. to make the next move. The issue of fishing rights, a bone of contention between France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, failed to produce much in the way of a public clash. “We are 100% united,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

Johnson’s response on Friday was blustery but ultimately inconclusive: He heaped scorn on the EU for not giving the U.K. the free-trade deal it wanted and warned it was time to prepare for a “no-deal” outcome, but he also kept the door open for further talks.

U.K. negotiator David Frost had earlier said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the EU’s stance. But this rings hollow. It shouldn’t shock anyone that the EU tends to stick together when Johnson tries to divide and conquer, especially with a threat to pull the plug on talks (which he’s made  before). There’s a lack of trust here, made worse by Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, which has both angered the EU and stoked divisions within British politics. There is no incentive for the bloc to sell French (and Irish) fishing boats down the river for a deal.

Hence why we seem to be stuck in an eternal time loop. Brexit isn’t a celebratory trade negotiation between two actors pursuing mutually beneficial comparative advantage by knocking down barriers. It’s the reverse: A once free flow of trade between both sides ($570 billion in 2019) must now be governed by new terms, with the U.K. tempted to compete aggressively on tax and regulation, while the EU tries to protect its single market from commercial “dumping.” Brexit is for London to exult in, and Brussels to defend against.

The trust deficit has made things worse. The U.K. has treated questions of regulatory alignment and state aid as an affront to its sovereignty, which only confirms Brussels’s fears that post-Brexit Britain wants to maximize market access and minimize pesky rules of engagement. Although both sides have softened their positions somewhat, Johnson’s cavalier attitude to respecting the Brexit terms he signed up to — including when he breezily stated he would enforce an agreed customs border in the Irish Sea over his “dead body” — casts doubt on the ability to enforce future agreements.

In an ideal world, rather than engaging in more no-deal brinkmanship, the U.K. and EU would keep edging towards compromise — especially when both sides need to focus on battling Covid-19’s second wave. A strong mechanism to settle disputes and a shared state-aid oversight body should be to the U.K.’s benefit, not just the EU’s. As for the fight over fishing, given the U.K. exports 75% of its catch to the EU, it is surely in British interests to keep its neighbors on-side with access agreements that last longer than one year. 

But until the U.K. shows itself willing to back down on positions like its breach of international law, the issue of trust will remain a sticking point. The EU won’t rush through a trade deal only to have it knocked down by the European Parliament. EU lawmakers have already warned that ratifying any agreement would be conditional on the U.K.’s respect for Brexit terms agreed last year. 

If Brexit has taught the EU anything, it’s that it pays to stick together in an uncertain world. Donald Trump’s presidency and the assertiveness of China have pushed the Europeans to circle the wagons in defense of their greatest asset: A barrier-free single market promoted by Margaret Thatcher, expanded eastward under Tony Blair, and governed by financial and antitrust rules influenced by British civil servants. Johnson’s legacy, unwittingly, may be only to further strengthen a trading giant the British helped create.

(Adds Johnson’s response on Friday in fifth paragraph.)

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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