Brexit talks in ‘final push’ as EU capitals call for launch of no deal plans
Brexit negotiating teams are in the “final push” for a trade agreement with Britain, Michel Barnier told a meeting of EU Commissioners in Brussels on Wednesday.
Senior diplomats warned that EU governments would demand the European Commission launch emergency no deal plans if a trade accord was not struck by Friday.
There was a risk that could poison the ongoing negotiations in Brussels, one senior diplomat said, but, with six weeks to go before the end of the year the EU had no choice but to start work on its no deal safety net.
The plans aim to mitigate the worst disruption to EU interests in sectors such as aviation and freight but fall far short of a “managed no deal”, which would involve consultation and consideration of British interests.
The UK leaves the Brexit transition period, and the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, on December 31. If an agreement is not ratified by then the UK and EU will trade on no deal WTO terms from January 1.
There were reports this week a trade agreement could be announced on Monday or Tuesday. But UK and EU sources warn that significant differences remain over the major obstacles of fishing, the level playing field guarantees and the deal’s enforcement.
Mr Barnier briefed the "college of commissioners" at their weekly Cabinet -style meeting, which is chaired by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.
Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, who is also the EU trade commissioner, said after the meeting that talks with David Frost’s UK negotiators were continuing with “great intensity”.
“We are now in the final push to reach agreement,” he said, “"One can say indeed we are now in the last moments to reach this agreement."
"There are still important elements to be resolved,” he said, “We have seen many deadlines come and go but there’s one deadline which we’ll not be able to move. January 1.”
The EU’s chief negotiator will report to the ambassadors of the 27 member states on Friday morning.
A senior EU diplomat said, “I do have the impression that the finalisation of the legal texts is beginning but there is no breakthrough on the famous three points.
“We must now come up with contingency measures. January 1 is getting close, we need a safety net.” “Of course this sends out a political signal. But we have a business community that we want to tell in good time what to do.”
The diplomat suggested that the publication of the no deal plans could concentrate minds in London. “I think, and I know other member states will ask for the same,” the source said.
“It’s quite clear, there will be a disruption on January 1. The question is, how big a disruption,” the diplomat added.
In London, Northern Ireland’s Justice minister told MPs that the country risked a “potential bonanza” of organised crime unless the Government struck security and police cooperation deals with Brussels in the negotiations.
Northern Ireland will continue to follow some EU rules to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland from January 1. Instead there will be a customs border in the Irish Sea.
Northern Irish businesses, manufacturers and farmers said they would not be ready for the deadline because the Government had not given them enough information.
They demanded the UK and EU negotiate a grace period after December 31 to ensure they could continue trading with mainland Britain as they do now.
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott told the Commons International Trade Committee there is an "eagerness" on both sides to secure a UK-Australia free trade deal before Christmas.
"Ideally a deal between Britain and Australia would involve no tariffs, no quotas, as full as possible mutual recognition of standards and qualifications, and as free as possible movement of people for well-paid work, not welfare,” Mr Abbott, who now acts as an adviser to the UK Board of Trade, said.