BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A senior EU official said on Monday it “may be too late already” to put in place any trade deal with Britain before its informal membership of the European Union expires at the end of this year if Brexit negotiators seal a deal this week or next.
Ireland, the EU state most exposed to Britain’s exit from the EU, said earlier in the day that Britain and the bloc had up to 10 days to unlock talks to prevent sudden tariffs and quotas from eating into an estimated trillion dollars worth of annual trade in just over six weeks.
“They haven’t quite reached where they had hoped to be,” one of EU diplomats following Brexit said as talks between the bloc’s negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, resumed in Brussels.
A senior EU diplomat, also speaking under condition of anonymity, added: “Britain has choices to make.”
A third EU diplomatic source said: “One cannot say things haven’t moved, since the negotiators are writing a legal text together. So there is some movement. But also way to go still.”
“The (issues of) level playing field, governance and fisheries are pending. As are serious decisions to be taken by the UK.”
While Brexit negotiators were still looking for mutually acceptable solutions to the three most contentious issues, the senior EU official said it might already be too late for the necessary ratification by the European Parliament even if Brexit negotiators nail down a deal this week or next.
“It’s getting terribly late and may be too late already,” said the official, adding that the 27-nation EU would decide next steps once Barnier and Frost produce a deal, if at all.
UPHEAVAL IN JOHNSON’S CIRCLE
The European Parliament has previously said it could give the necessary consent at its last plenary meeting scheduled for this year on Dec. 15-16 – if the lawmakers received a finished text of a trade treaty on Monday at the latest.
“We remain determined, patient, respectful. We want our future cooperation to be open but fair in all areas,” Barnier said on Monday as he resumed talks with Frost.
EU sources also wondered if the upheaval this month in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s inner circle – in which his top adviser and Brexit mastermind Dominic Cummings was ousted – was distracting London’s attention. This, they said, may be making it harder for Frost to know exactly how far he could go towards a compromise to clinch a deal.
Johnson’s Downing Street office said there had been no change to its Brexit strategy after Cummings’ departure, and it reiterated its uncompromising line in a statement on Monday.
“The Prime Minister has been clear that we will not accept any proposals in the negotiations that undermine our status as a sovereign, independent country and if the EU don’t respect the sovereignty of the UK we will leave on Australian terms and the Prime Minister is confident that we will prosper,” it said.
Unlike Britain’s current free-trade arrangements, Australia’s trading terms with the EU include costly barriers such as quotas and tariffs.
The 27 national EU leaders will hold a videoconference on Thursday to discuss their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Should no Brexit agreement transpire by then, they are expected to focus again on preparations for a chaotic breakdown in trade at the end of 2020 when Britain’s continued participation in the EU customs union and single market ends.
Should they fail to overcome their differences, the economic fallout would worsen the recession already wrought on Britain and the EU by the coronavirus pandemic this year.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich