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Michel Barnier: EU contingency planning to kick in if Brexit deal chances slim by Thursday

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The window for a deal between the EU and the U.K. is rapidly closing, and if there isn’t more clarity in the negotiations by Thursday evening, the EU will have to focus on contingency planning, the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier told EU ambassadors Wednesday.

Barnier’s message was no different than the one he has given EU countries in briefings in the last few weeks. But he stressed that “this time is different,” according to a person in the room. Even with maximum flexibility, EU countries need time to go through the text of a potential deal before they can give it the green light.

“We are quickly approaching a make or break moment in the Brexit talks,” an EU diplomat said. “Intensive negotiations are continuing in London. As of this morning it is still unclear whether negotiators can bridge the gaps on issues like level playing, governance and fisheries.”

As things stand now, it’s still not possible to say if a deal is doable, Barnier said Wednesday. He made clear that if that’s still the case Thursday evening, talking about contingency planning will become unavoidable.

A group of EU countries, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, have been pushing the European Commission for weeks to publish its contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. The Commission wanted to wait because doing so could be seen as a political sign to London that Brussels has lost faith in the trade talks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said on Monday: “I would wait with [contingency planning] as long as it is possible. Instead, we should put all our energy into the final stage of the negotiations.”

However, another EU diplomat said: “This pressure, coming from these countries which will be the most impacted, becomes impossible to ignore.”

With less than a month to go until the end of the transition period, EU capitals are also increasingly nervous about the prospect of a no-deal and what potential compromise to avoid that scenario might be possible. On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that France won’t accept an agreement that doesn’t respect its interests in the long term. EU diplomats on Wednesday reiterated their red lines to Barnier.

“As we are entering the endgame of the Brexit negotiations, some member states are becoming a bit jittery,” the first EU diplomat said. “So this [Wednesday’s meeting with Barnier] was mostly an exercise to calm nerves in Paris and elsewhere and to reassure member states that team Barnier will continue to defend core EU interests including on fisheries.”

In a separate closed-door briefing with Barnier, the European Parliament also made clear to Barnier that time is running out for ratification by MEPs if a deal isn’t struck in the next few days.

“Swift progress is of the essence,” David McAllister, the chair of the Parliament’s U.K. Coordination Group, tweeted afterward. “An agreement needs to be reached within very few days if Council and Parliament are to complete their respective procedures before the end of the transition period.”

McAllister also said that “democratic scrutiny is not negotiable,” meaning that Parliament has to ratify the deal before it enters into force.

Barnier also told MEPs and EU ambassadors that he’s closely monitoring the upcoming U.K. taxation legislation which is expected next week, as Brussels fears that, as with the row over the U.K.’s Internal Market Bill, the U.K. could use this domestic legislation to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

According to officials present at the meetings, this domestic legislation could deliver another blow to the negotiations, but even that wouldn’t lead to the EU walking away from the negotiating table. “It’s the EU’s strategy to never walk away, as that would make it too easy for London to blame us,” another EU diplomat said.

However, the proposed bill, which would give the U.K. unilateral power to decide which goods exported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are “at risk” of passing into the Republic of Ireland, would not be needed if London and Brussels strike a trade deal, U.K. officials say.

There are also warnings in the U.K. that Boris Johnson must not sell out his pro-Brexit MPs. 

Some see the large rebellion from his own party during a vote on the latest coronavirus restrictions in the House of Commons on Tuesday night as an indication that the 80-strong majority he won a year ago could quickly evaporate. 

“The defining issues of the Johnson premiership, however long he is prime minister, will be decided in the next couple of weeks: Brexit and COVID-19,” one Conservative Euroskeptic said. “And the prime minister will know he can’t fluff either of them. Many of those who rebelled are the same as the ones who put him into the leadership.”

The same person warned: “We have kept the children waiting a long time for their Christmas present. It had better be a good present now.”

Others argue the defeat over COVID and the issue of Brexit are not linked, but insist Johnson cannot disappoint his MPs on the EU departure. 

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis said Johnson might “have a problem with a large number of his own party not voting for it if they thought he made too many concessions.”

CORRECTED: This article has been updated to correct the outcome of the coronavirus vote in the House of Commons.

This article has been updated.

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