Missing deadlines has become a tradition in EU-U.K. negotiations. But this time, Brussels is getting increasingly nervous about the ticking clock.
Brexit talks are set to stretch into next week after insufficient progress was made in negotiations in London this week, thereby passing the deadline of mid-November. Officials expect talks to continue Friday, pause over the weekend and then resume in Brussels next week.
The next informal deadline suggested by EU officials is the videoconference of European leaders next Thursday. If a deal is not been reached by then, Brussels will put forward the contingency legislation it has prepared to prevent a cliff-edge scenario in the event of a no-deal, one EU official said.
EU officials say stretching the deadline even further makes ratification for Brussels before the end of the year almost impossible. “EU countries need time to scrutinize the text,” according to one EU diplomat. “The role of EU member states is more than just endorsing the deal. If that’s what the European Commission has in mind, it will be disastrous. This is a delicate and fragile process, which the U.K. doesn’t seem to understand.”
The same goes for the European Parliament. Its U.K. Coordination Group will discuss the possible timeline needed to get a potential Brexit deal ratified on time in a closed-door meeting Friday afternoon. It had previously said a deal should be settled on before the end of October in order to have time for a proper discussion in the parliament’s trade and foreign affairs committees.
“We’re trying to be flexible as everyone prefers a deal over a no-deal scenario,” one MEP said. “But you can’t expect us to just rubber stamp such an important and complex agreement.”
On the U.K. side, the thinking is that the mid-November deadline long talked about by EU officials is of little concern, as Britain can ratify a deal much more quickly than the Continent. The deal must go through Westminster’s parliament, but will not have to be translated into multiple languages or need votes across member nations, as it could on the EU side. “We have been working hard to get a deal with the EU, but it has to be one that respects the U.K.’s sovereignty,” a Downing Street spokesman told journalists Thursday afternoon.
Opinions diverge on whether or not a deal is still possible before the end of next week. The EU diplomat mentioned above said not to read the stretching of the deadline as an indication that talks didn’t go well this week. “All options are still on the table.” Another EU diplomat said there was still hope a thin deal could be reached, but that the final outcome remained unknown.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said on Thursday the U.K. ought to make an effort to strike a deal with the EU to avoid trading with the bloc on World Trade Organization terms. He urged Downing Street to “knuckle down.”
In a similar call for U.K. flexibility, Stefaan De Rynck, a member of the EU’s task force for relations with the U.K., asked for “a whit of courage for signing up to fair competition in the mutual interest of EU and U.K.”
The EU is pushing to insert “ratchet clauses” into the deal that would prevent a future unwinding of U.K. environmental regulations and labor standards, which is a no-go for London. The U.K. insists it does not plan a race to the bottom in standards but wants to make its own decisions, which was one of the main reasons for opting for Brexit. This is one of the main sticking points when it comes to the level playing field and was also referred to by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier earlier this week, alongside fisheries and the overall governance of the deal.
On Thursday, however, Barnier opted for a more light-hearted approach, at least on Twitter.
But for now, London seems keen to throw the ball right back into the EU’s court. British Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told the House of Commons Thursday that “the U.K. has already shown a great degree of flexibility in these negotiations, but it is important also that the European Union shows flexibility too.”
Hans von der Burchard and Laurenz Gehrke contributed reporting.