EU ready to ‘find creative solution to avoid accidental no-deal Brexit’
The European Union will find a "creative solution" to avoid an accidental no-deal Brexit if a trade agreement with the UK is reached too late to beat the end of year deadline, a senior EU diplomat said on Monday.
The diplomat said the UK-EU trade negotiations were already running "extremely late" and that was putting pressure on the European Parliament’s ratification timetable for the deal.
"We’re working very hard to get a deal, but there’s quite a lot to do," said David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator as he arrived for talks with European Commission negotiators.
It was hoped a deal could be ready by this Thursday’s summit of EU leaders, but that unofficial deadline will be missed as negotiators struggle to overcome divisions on fishing, "level playing field" guarantees and the deal’s enforcement.
Any trade agreement must be ratified by the European Parliament before December 31 or the UK will leave the Brexit transition period without a deal on January 1. No deal will mean trading with the EU on less lucrative WTO terms, with tariffs and quotas, rather than the zero tariff and quota deal being negotiated in Brussels this week.
The senior diplomat suggested a fudge could be found provided the UK and EU could finally clinch a hard-fought agreement.
European Parliament sources said the latest MEPs can get a finalised deal for scrutiny is December 10 if the agreement is to be ratified this year. The UK and EU would have to agree the deal, which is thought to be about 1,800 pages, weeks before then so it can be translated into the EU’s 24 official languages.
David Frost (second from right) is continuing talks with his EU counterparts this week
Credit: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP
The senior diplomat suggested it might already be too late to hit the parliament’s deadline, saying: "It will be tight and, as the negotiations drag on, we will maybe have to see that we find some creative solution – but that is too early to discuss that at this stage.
"First let’s see whether we’ll have an agreement and if there is an agreement, when there will be an agreement, and then we take it from there."
The European Commission’s chief spokesman said: "We prioritise the quality of this agreement over any kind of timing or deadlines. [It] will have to be high quality, conditions will have to be right. Our priority is to reach an agreement on the substance, and that’s an approach we will not deviate from."
Among the possible creative solutions is an accelerated or streamlined ratification process in the European Parliament or the provisional application of the trade deal.
Provisional application would see the trade deal enter into force on January 1, but its continued application would be subject to European Parliament votes in the New Year.
"If a UK-EU deal is agreed, it will be ratified one way or the other. It is much easier than easier than working out how you get to a deal," said David Henig, trade expert and director of the European Centre For International Political Economy think tank.
EU sources recognise that MEPs will bridle at being forced to approve the deal at short notice but expect them to fall into line because the alternative is an economically damaging no deal.
Boris Johnson was urged to negotiate an adjustment period into any final trade agreement with the European Union to provide "breathing space" of up to six months for businesses. The Prime Minister warned on Monday that Britain will not accept any trade deal that undermines UK sovereignty.
But Brussels must make sure that Britain stays close to its rules and regulations after Brexit, the EU’s financial services chief warned. Mairead McGuinness told Times Radio: "If we do a trade agreement with any player, but particularly the UK that is leaving the EU, we have to use our standards as the very basis.
"We also need to make sure that, over time, whatever divergence that the UK might take – and that is a theme of Brexit – that they remain close to standards at EU level. That is not clear at the moment."
The EU will switch to preparing for no deal in 10 days if there is not a "major breakthrough" in negotiations this week, Ireland’s foreign minister, who identified fishing as a significant obstacle to agreement, said.
"If there is not a major breakthrough over the next week to 10 days then I think we really are in trouble and the focus will shift to preparing for a no trade deal and all the disruption that that brings," Simon Coveney warned.
"What the British Government have promised to their fishing industry versus what Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate from the EU is – there’s a very, very wide gap. It’s not good. That’s the truth of it. These negotiations are not in a good place when it comes to fishing."
The European Commission said it did not expect Mr Johnson’s self-isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus to delay negotiations.
"We of course wish the Prime Minister well," a spokesman said. "I understand that the Prime Minister has, in any case, said that he will continue to carry out business, so we hope that this can be the case whatever the circumstances."