A trade and security deal with the UK is close to being finalized, but the risk of an accidental Brexit with no deal remains in six weeks, with gaps in contentious issues that are only “slowly narrowing,” ambassadors have been told. of the EU.
With Michel Barnier in self-isolation following news that an EU negotiator has tested positive for coronavirus, the talks will take place almost entirely by video conference over the next few days.
The highest-ranking official in the European Commission, Ilze Juhansone, told representatives of the 27 member states in Brussels that most of the 11 key negotiating issues now had “joint legal texts with fewer and fewer outstanding items.”
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also offered new reasons for optimism. She said: “After difficult weeks with very, very slow progress, we have now seen in the last few days better progress, more movement on important files. There are still a few meters to go to the finish line, so there is still a lot of work to do ”.
The familiar issues of the EU’s access to UK fishing waters and the design of a mechanism to ensure that neither party can distort trade through undercutting standards remain unresolved, but the differences are gradually being bridged, the sources said.
An EU diplomat said: “There is tangible progress in a number of areas, while the gaps are only slowly narrowing on fundamental issues such as a level playing field, governance and fisheries.
“Growing concern that the negotiation process is not moving fast enough to ensure the ratification of a possible agreement by the year-end deadline.
“However, it is hoped that the negotiations can be completed quickly if the necessary political decisions are made in London and once.
“At the same time, EU member states agree that contingency planning should be intensified in parallel with the ongoing and hopefully successful EU-UK negotiation process. Still, the EU must be prepared for all possible outcomes. “
The UK’s insistence that it should be able to set its own environmental, labor and social standards without any prior approval remains difficult.
The details of the treaty’s dispute resolution system are also proving difficult to clarify, as the UK wants the fisheries to be out of any sanctions regime.
Such is the shortage of time that Juhansone told the ambassadors that they probably would not be able to translate the more than 600-page treaty into the 23 official languages of the bloc.
The French ambassador insisted that the French translation of the treaty was key for Paris to approve the deal and called for a discussion on the legal nature of the deal in a few days.
If the treaty only involves EU competences, it will only need the ratification of the European Parliament, but the process is complicated when it affects areas where national parliaments have a decisive role.
The deal, even if it involves both EU and national competences, could provisionally enter into force on January 1, with national parliaments ratifying it at a later date.
But member states are at least looking for time for their parliamentarians to debate the details of the deal in the remaining month and a half.
A large number of ambassadors also asked the European Commission to publish contingency proposals “as soon as possible given the late stage of negotiations and the possibility of accidents in the last six weeks,” said a source.
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