Britain and the European Union begin negotiations over a new trading relationship today, but like in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, a strange unreality hangs over everything.
The two sides have given themselves just 10 months to agree on a new trading relationship that will supersede the no-tariffs, no-checks system that currently exists. Last week, the U.K. and EU each published a “mandate,” setting out what they wanted from any new deal. Taken together, their opening positions left just about enough middle ground for a final agreement to be struck, analysts said, narrow though it may be.
The problem, though, is not that a compromise has become impossible or even unlikely—few believe either is yet the case. The problem is the apparent hands-over-the-eyes failure of either side to accept that the world has changed since Britain left the EU on January 31.
London appears to be denying the reality of the price it has already paid to extricate itself from the EU’s legal order: de facto border controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (both sovereign parts of the United Kingdom). Brussels, in return, appears to be denying the reality of Brexit altogether—that Britain has decided to leave the EU’s legal order, regardless of the economic costs. So far, Brussels’s position is as straightforward as it is unacceptable to London: The price of a new trading relationship is the U.K. abiding by some EU standards, set by the EU and enforced by the EU’s court in perpetuity.