Nearly four years after the UK voted to leave the European Union, we are back to a familiar conundrum: deal or no deal. Except that this time we are talking about the trade agreement that will govern future EU-UK relations.
If the result is ‘no deal’, the UK will leave the Single Market on 1 January and trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.
So what are the main dividing lines?
The UK is seeking a ‘zero tariff, zero quota’ free trade agreement, similar to the EU-Canada trade pact.
It has also rejected the EU’s demands for unchanged access to UK fishing waters, the UK committing not to roll back standards in environment and labour law – known as the ‘level playing field’ – and the UK following EU state aid law now and into the future.
This is the price the EU is asking for a free trade agreement. But on all three counts little progress has been made.
UK ministers complain that the EU does not recognise the UK as a sovereign equal. “The EU, essentially, wants us to obey the rules of their club, even though we’re no longer members,” Cabinet minister Michael Gove told the House of Commons this month.
Michel Barnier’s team, meanwhile, is increasingly exasperated by what they perceive as London’s lack of urgency. Time, and the lack of it, is again a major factor.
So, too, is the underlying sense of bad faith over the implementation over the Northern Ireland protocol to cover trade between the province and the Republic of Ireland and avoid a hard border.
The question is: whether and how leaders will be able to break the stalemate.
Logic suggests that a compromise of some kind will be found to avoid unnecessary economic damage. But then if we have learnt anything from the last four years it is that, when it comes to Brexit, hard economic logic is a distant second to domestic politics.