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An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds an EU flag in Parliament Square, in London, on Dec. 16, 2020.Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press

By Friday, the Brexit stories out of London and Brussels were as they have always been: deadline looming, final throw of the dice, down to the wire, cliff edge, moment of truth. And so on. “EU’s Barnier says: just hours left for a Brexit trade deal,” a Reuters headline said, referring to chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the 4½ years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, it is that negotiation deadlines are flexible and transition periods can go on forever.

The other thing we’ve come to understand is that the outcome, whatever it is, will be tilted largely or entirely in the EU’s favour, even though British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will dress up the result as a victory for U.K. sovereignty and the launchpad for a swashbuckling national enterprise that will restore the country’s old, free-trading glory.

By the end of this week, a new deal between Britain and the EU was, depending on whom you listened to, and the time of day, either tantalizingly close or on the verge of collapse. There is no doubt that progress toward a deal has been made in recent weeks – but also that the final sticking points could kibosh the whole effort. They include fishing rights – who gets to fish where and for how long – and the competitive landscape. The EU wants the U.K. to agree not to use state support, deregulation and lower environmental standards to give British companies an unfair advantage in any new trade deal. It wants a “level playing field.”

My own view is that, for all his bluster and for all the pressure from the Conservative Party’s gung-ho Brexiteers, Mr. Johnson is more likely to strike a deal than walk away and let World Trade Organization rules govern the U.K.’s trade with the EU.

Even with a deal, there will be some disruption, as we saw in photos Friday of trucks backed up at the entrance to the Eurotunnel at Folkestone, the port town on the English Channel. British companies were rushing to stockpile goods in case the Brexit talks collapse. Imagine the border chaos if they do.

Mr. Johnson must be more desperate for a deal than he lets on, because of the economic wrecking machine that is the pandemic.

The OECD recently warned that Britain’s economy will contract 11.2 per cent this year after forecasting a 10.1-per-cent fall only three months ago. The OECD also said the U.K.’s recovery will lag behind those of every other major economy save Argentina’s, with growth of just 4.2 per cent in 2021, down from its previous call for 7.6 per cent. Another surge in COVID-19 infections might require another ugly rewrite.

There is no Brexit scenario that can be anything but damaging to the British economy – it’s just a matter of degree. S&P Global Ratings this week said the economy would expand 6 per cent with a trade deal in 2021 and 4.6 per cent without one. Absent a deal, it is not ruling out “significant social unrest or extreme market volatility that risks investor confidence.”

In other words, Mr. Johnson cannot afford to pile a no-deal Brexit onto an ailing pandemic economy. The hit on public finances and jobs could be horrific. Brexit was never about the economy – it was about giving the middle finger to the rule-mad gnomes in Brussels, regaining full sovereignty and creating “Global Britain,” whatever that means. Still, there is only so much pain the British economy can take. At some point, Mr. Johnson’s popularity would sink along with the GDP, and he does not want to risk becoming a one-shot wonder like Donald Trump.

If the U.K. and the EU do manage to eke out a deal, what might it look like? Hard to say, given the fluid and delicate state of the negotiations and the shifting red lines. Still, it’s safe to assume the EU will give up far less than the U.K.

There is no balance of power in the talks. The EU’s population is 450 million; the U.K.’s is 67 million. Last year, 43 per cent of British exports went to the EU; the EU sends only about 4 per cent of its exports to the U.K. A no-deal Brexit would see both sides lose, but the U.K. would lose 10 times more.

The EU’s single market is its proudest achievement, and it is inconceivable that it would jeopardize the fair running of that market by handing a former member state a competitive advantage. Mr. Johnson must also know by now that few big countries will move quickly to strike a trade deal with the U.K. President-elect Joe Biden, who has Irish ancestry, has said that any post-Brexit trade deal must not compromise peace in Northern Ireland. And with the pandemic raging in the United States, handing Mr. Johnson a trade deal is not going to be Mr. Biden’s first priority – or second.

As if to prove the point that the U.K. will get left behind on global trade and investment talks after it leaves the EU, China and the EU are on the verge of signing a bilateral investment deal, according to the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry. The deal would lift many of the restrictions on EU companies’ investments in China. The EU has the clout to pull off such deals. Post-Brexit Britain will not.