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Shift to online complicates Brexit talks endgame

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Brexit negotiators have claimed for weeks that a deal was virtually within reach. Now the talks have actually gone virtual — after an EU negotiator tested positive for coronavirus — but there’s still no sign of an agreement, the European Commission told EU ambassadors Friday. 

The shift to negotiating by videoconference is just the latest setback in the talks, and while officials said it was more of an annoyance than anything more serious, there is little margin for error given the tight timetable. 

“This is definitely not ideal,” said an EU official closely involved in the talks. “It’s better if one can look each other in the eye or go for a walk through the corridors instead of talking via screens — especially in the end phase of the negotiations.”

At the same time, the official insisted that “this won’t be the thing that makes or breaks these negotiations. It was going to be difficult either way.”

The Commission on Friday briefed EU ambassadors on the state of play of the negotiations, which are already playing overtime.

According to several EU officials and diplomats, the message was similar to the one they’ve been hearing for some time: There is significant progress in a number of areas (and negotiators are even closing in on a legal text), but gaps are only slowly shrinking on the core issues of fisheries, the so-called level playing field — making sure that the U.K. cannot undercut the bloc after it has left — and the governance of the deal.

There is still hope that negotiations can be finalized quickly “once the necessary political decisions in London are taken,” an EU diplomat said. For weeks, Brussels has been insisting that the ball is in London’s court, and that message was repeated by diplomats after Friday’s meeting.

“Progress hinges on a political shift in London,” another EU diplomat said. “If London moves, this agreement can be closed quickly. But that remains a big if.”

Getting a deal over the line

As the negotiations stretch into what (yet again) has been dubbed a “crucial week,” there is growing concern in EU countries that the process is taking too long to ensure that any deal is ratified before the end of the year, so it can enter into force on January 1.

EU ambassadors were therefore briefed on Friday about the timeline and the remaining options for ratification. There was no new hard deadline mentioned, the EU official mentioned above said. “We’re now in a phase where proper ratification to make sure the deal enters into force in all languages on January 1 is no longer possible. That also means that all other deadlines have become very fluid.”

As POLITICO reported earlier this week, EU translators would have to get the documents on Monday to start working on translating the text of an agreement into all of the EU’s 23 official languages other than English.

Asking EU heads of state and government and the European Parliament to approve the agreement without translation into every language could create legal challenges, or even stall the process into next year if any officials refuse to sign off on the English-only documents, as is their legal right.

The European Parliament is also struggling with how to handle the ratification process. The Parliament’s U.K. Coordination Group had previously said a deal should be settled before the end of October in order to have a proper discussion in the Parliament’s trade and foreign affairs committees. MEPs are trying to be flexible about timelines as they prefer a deal over a no-deal scenario, but they want to avoid merely rubber-stamping such an important agreement without discussion.

EU ambassadors therefore discussed letting the deal enter into force provisionally, which would give the Parliament time at the beginning of next year to ratify it. Some EU officials suggest it would be better to have a deal approved by all institutions before the end of the transition period to show the EU’s unity on Brexit —  but that still has to be decided.

In both scenarios, a potential deal has to get the green light from all EU countries in Council, which is another potential risk. Several EU countries are worried that the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier may be too eager to conclude a deal with the U.K. and agree to a compromise that is worse for the bloc than a no-deal scenario.

Barnier now finds himself in a challenging position. The pressure to avoid a cliff-edge scenario by the end of the year is increasing, as negotiators on both sides of the Channel prefer to have a negotiated outcome. But in order to reach that deal, the former French minister must avoid crossing any of the red lines set by the EU’s 27 countries, as any of them could torpedo a potential compromise. According to another EU diplomat, the Commission on Friday promised it will be working on more regular feedback to EU countries in the coming days.

Brussels knows its ratification process is complicated and that London could use this to run down the clock in order to get an EU compromise. But EU diplomats insist that its red lines remain bright, with the most important one being to prevent the U.K. from undercutting the EU in the future by agreeing on level playing field rules now. Brussels says it won’t budge because of the time pressure, and stresses that the bottom line is that London has political choices to make.

As this game of chicken increases the chances of a no-deal outcome, EU countries are at the same time pushing the European Commission to step up its no-deal preparations. The leaders of Belgium, France and the Netherlands on Thursday asked the Commission to launch its contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. “We can’t keep hoping for a good outcome,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters. “There might be one, but hoping alone is not enough.”

That same demand was made by several EU countries at Friday’s meeting of EU ambassadors, according to people present. The Commission, however, did not indicate that it would step up its no-deal preparations.

A spokesperson said the Commission is “fully concentrated on reaching a deal with the U.K.” and that “if contingency measures are needed, they would be limited and tailored to the existing very specific circumstances and would be adopted in due time to ensure that we are fully prepared for 1 January.”

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