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Boris Johnson and the EU Are Talking Past Each Other, Again

(Bloomberg) — When Boris Johnson’s top Brexit negotiator went to Brussels to deliver a stinging speech full of threats and allegations last week, his target was the officials who run the European Union. The problem is, they couldn’t believe he really meant it.

The rematch of Britain versus the bloc is threatening to become just as much a clash of cultures as the three years of fraught negotiations that led to the U.K.’s exit from the EU last month. Only this time, the prime minister has a majority, and his threats to walk away without a deal may be for real. That change may not be fully appreciated in Brussels.

So when negotiator David Frost told his audience he believes “it’s good for a country and its people to have its fate in its own hands,” and the U.K. is prepared to walk away from a deal if it doesn’t get full control over its own laws, EU diplomats were convinced he was playing to the Brexit fundamentalists in Johnson’s Conservative Party. The theory goes that once the prime minister has persuaded them that he’s a hard-liner, it’s much easier for him to concede to the EU’s demands later.

The problem with that argument, British officials say, is that Johnson and others in his team like Frost are true Brexit believers. When the prime minister says he will prioritize independence over a trade deal, he means it.

“Our overriding priority is to retake control of our laws,” Downing Street spokesman James Slack told reporters in London on Tuesday.

Read more – Britain’s Departure From the EU Sets Clock Ticking: Timeline

All the talking at cross-purposes just serves to make the negotiations between the two sides that start next week more complicated.

British and European diplomats are already wondering aloud whether the EU is being too complacent about the U.K.’s determination to break free and are stuck still fighting the battles of the past few years, when Britain was ruled by a very different leader.

Some in the EU fear the bloc has failed to realize that Johnson’s government is taking a more aggressive stance than Theresa May’s — in particular by raising doubts over its commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement. Under Johnson, the U.K. has also shifted away from the conciliatory tone of Frost’s predecessor, Olly Robbins, and has implemented a strategy of immediately rebuffing EU claims to journalists.

So when the EU repeats its warnings that Brexit means trade can no longer be frictionless, and that the U.K. can’t expect to get a bespoke trade deal in 10 months, the U.K.’s response is: Yes, we know.

Clash in Cultures

Officials in Brussels say the penny has now dropped with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and his team. But convincing the rest of the EU machinery and the 27 governments, some of whom still assume Johnson will extend the negotiating period beyond 2020 despite his flat denials, is proving more difficult.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Barnier said he doesn’t understand the U.K. government’s call for economic and political independence to be restored by the end of the year. Johnson considers that Britain won’t have its freedom until it is liberated from all EU rules and standards, including fishing rights, competition policy and labor regulation.

“That is not true,” Barnier said, because Britain’s sovereignty has already been restored with Brexit. “The economic and political independence of the U.K. does not need to be negotiated.”

The clash in cultures extends to the heart of the negotiations themselves. In last week’s speech, Frost said the democratic consent of the British public could “snap dramatically and finally” if faced with having to stick to EU rules when no longer a member, and British officials say they think the bloc’s demands to do that are wholly unreasonable.

Yet to the Europeans, it makes perfect sense. “The U.K. is a sovereign country, they can choose their own rules freely and everything that happens in the U.K. depends on them,” French Europe Minister Amelie de Montchalin said Tuesday in Brussels. “But when products leave the U.K. and want to enter the EU, it’s up to us to decide.”

–With assistance from Thomas Penny.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Edward Evans, Tim Ross

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