LONDON — Like ex-spouses who have just signed divorce papers but not yet begun the ugly business of dividing their possessions, Britain and the European Union are tiptoeing around each other as the year begins, desperate to keep their dealings civil even as they gird for the unpleasantness to come.
On Wednesday, a cordial Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the new president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to 10 Downing St. but offered no hint of flexibility on his campaign to negotiate a trade deal by the end of 2020.
Von der Leyen spoke warmly of a new beginning for “old friends,” but she made it clear she thought Johnson’s timetable for negotiating a comprehensive agreement was utterly unrealistic. She warned Britain that “the more divergence there is” between Britain’s rules and the bloc’s, “the more distant the partnership has to be.”
“The truth is that our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before,” von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, said in a speech at the London School of Economics. “It cannot and will not be as close as before, because with every choice comes a consequence.”
“With every decision,” she added, “comes a trade-off.”
Those trade-offs are going to come thick and fast after Britain leaves the European Union on Jan. 31. Negotiators will then have 11 months to agree on terms for trading in goods and services, as well as on regulations covering health, safety, fishing, farming, banking, aviation and transportation — replacing the latticework of rules that entwined Britain and Europe over their four decades together.
If the two sides fail to strike a deal by Dec. 31 of this year, it could theoretically trigger something like the “no-deal Brexit” that Johnson threatened last fall before Parliament thwarted his efforts to withdraw from the European Union by the end of October. The more likely scenario, experts said, is a “bare bones” trade deal that will leave many of the issues to be hashed out in 2021 and beyond.
Either way, for British voters who believed that Johnson’s landslide election victory last month would end the 3 1/2-year debate over Brexit, the drama of the coming year may prove to be a rude shock.
Mujtaba Rahman, a former European Commission official who works for the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said an ally of Johnson told him that one of the British government’s goals was to push the Brexit story from the front page to the business pages of newspapers in 2020.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said.
Part of the reason for that, Rahman said, is that Johnson has ruled out any extension of the transition, setting up yet another cliffhanging drama at the end of the year if there is no deal.
Moreover, his advisers appear determined to shun close alignment with the European Union in favor of an agile, less-regulated economic model that some have dubbed Singapore-on-Thames.
“Instinctively, reflexively, intellectually, the people in power believe in the value of divergence,” he said. “They all think the EU is a bureaucratic over-regulator. This is about sovereignty and taking back democratic control.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the first face-to-face encounter between Johnson and von der Leyen in their current posts. They do not know each other well, though both are alumni of the European School in Brussels, where von der Leyen was raised and where Johnson lived more briefly as a child.
“Ursula and I were at school together,” Johnson said as they posed for cameras in 10 Downing St.
“Same school, but not the same time,” she corrected him.
Later, in 1978, von der Leyen studied at the London School of Economics, living under an alias and Scotland Yard protection because of fears that she might be kidnapped by the left-wing terrorist Red Army Faction. Her father was a prominent German politician and she came from a wealthy family.
At the commission, von der Leyen succeeded Jean-Claude Juncker, who was the public face of the European Union in its arduous negotiations with Britain since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Trained as a medical doctor, she has a reputation for being both smooth and steely in her dealings.
Johnson is trying to build bridges to European officials, having seen that his positive relationship with Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, helped him strike a critical deal on Britain’s withdrawal last fall. As is so often the case with Brexit, there is a danger of the two sides talking past each other.
In Brussels, officials are preoccupied by the complexity of the looming trade talks and are pushing the British to be pragmatic. They seem baffled by Johnson’s insistence on a compressed, time-limited negotiation, which they say could inflict needless damage on Britain’s economy.
Yet, in London, the Brexit project has always been driven by politics rather than economics. After his big election victory, Johnson is determined not to repeat the experience of his predecessor, Theresa May, whose leadership was destroyed by the crippling debate over withdrawal from the European Union.
Government officials have been told to avoid using the word “Brexit” to underscore the idea that the Jan. 31 departure will settle the issue once and for all. Johnson wants to resolve future trade ties quickly, so he can shift his government’s focus to less toxic domestic issues like health care.
Analysts also said the prime minister is calculating that if some damage to the British economy from Brexit is inevitable, it would make sense to sustain it early so that his government has four years or so to turn around the election before he faces voters in the next general election.
Johnson’s main objective on Wednesday was to convince von der Leyen that there will be no extension to the transition period. But she held out hope that Britain might reconsider in July, the last milestone at which Johnson could petition for an extension.
In a statement Downing Street described the talks as “positive” and said Britain wanted “a broad free trade agreement covering goods and services, and cooperation in other areas,” though the British say they want a different type of negotiation to the last one where nothing was agreed until everything was. That would open the way to a series of more limited accords, were Brussels to agree.
The European Union will not be ready to start talks until late February at the earliest. For even parts of a deal to be in place by December, the two sides will need to agree by late fall so the text can be legally scrubbed, translated into 23 languages and then approved by the 27 remaining member states.
Based on the track record of previous negotiations, most experts have concluded it will be all but impossible to negotiate and sign a comprehensive trade agreement by the end of the year.
Still, the optimists hope for an agreement on the most basic issue: a tariff-free trade deal. Other areas, like aviation, could be postponed until later, using contingency plans developed to keep planes flying had Britain withdrawn without any agreement at all last year. And the government could simply allow some major industries, like car manufacturing, to sign up to European regulations.
“It is more than a daunting task,” said Lourdes Catrain, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells in Brussels. “I am not saying it is impossible, but I am saying that it requires a lot of resources and very clear policies.”