Brexit: Why EU leaders are preparing for no deal with UK

Boris Johnson will see if a trade deal can be salvaged when he travels to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon, but EU leaders are beginning to believe a deal cannot be reached. Credit: AP

Michael Gove is conspicuously desperate for the UK to agree a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU, in the way that Boris Johnson is not (and the gap between the two has been there for months, according to his ministerial colleagues).

But in saying that "like Canada" the UK is happy to sign up to "non regression" he was being startlingly disingenuous, because the kind of "non regression" agreed by Canada is a world apart from the level-playing-field non regression on offer from the EU.

(And from the point of view of EU leaders, that difference is reasonable because Canada's economy is not integrated with the EU's in the way that the UK's is.)

There is a growing view in Brussels that the prime minister's conception of the sovereignty he wants for the UK is not compatible with a zero tariff, zero quota trade deal.

One EU official told me: "If the UK wants absolute sovereignty, no strings attached, we should let the UK go. We've done so much to accommodate Brexit".

If Gove was signalling that Johnson will accept non-regression on environmental, labour and other level-playing-field standards, justiciable in UK courts, and that he will agree to symmetrical rules for both sides to reduce the risk of unfair state subsidies (state aid rules), then there could be a breakthrough in talks tonight between the PM and Ursula von der Leyen.

But in citing Canada as the benchmark, Gove was clinging to a life raft that is barely afloat.

It does not augur well. The best that can happen tonight is that some kind of basis - possibly chimerical - is found for technical negotiations to restart. No-deal is a very real risk.