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Brexit deal close to being finalised, EU ambassadors told | Politics


A trade and security agreement with Britain is close to being finalised but the risk remains of an accidental no-deal Brexit in six weeks, with gaps on the contentious issues “slowly shrinking”, EU ambassadors have been told.

With Michel Barnier in self-isolation after an EU negotiator tested positive for coronavirus, the talks will be conducted almost entirely online over the next few days.

The European commission’s most senior official, Ilze Juhansone, told representatives of the 27 member states in Brussels that the majority of the 11 key negotiation issues now had “joint legal texts with fewer and fewer outstanding points”.

The two sides are also zoning in on agreements on EU access to UK fishing waters and the design of a mechanism to ensure neither side can distort trade through undercutting standards.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, offered fresh cause for optimism during a press conference. “After difficult weeks with very, very slow progress now we have seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files. This is good,” she said.

“Within the frame of the level playing field, progress, for example, has been made on the question of state aid, but there are still quite some metres to the finish line so there’s still a lot of work to do.

“Where the timelines are concerned, time pressure is high without any question at the moment.

“There’s a lot to work on, because there is now substance where you can go through line by line, word for word.

“The whole team is engaged and working tirelessly day and night to reach the natural deadline we have to be done by the end of the year.”

It is understood that the UK’s insistence that it needs to be able to set its own environmental, labour and social standards without any prior approval remains difficult, as does the definition of the current standards from which both sides say they will not regress.

The details of the treaty’s dispute resolution system is also proving hard to thrash out, with the UK wanting fisheries to be outside any sanctions regime.

A UK official said: “Although there has been some progress in recent days, there is much work to be done and time is now very short. We now need to see more realism from the EU on what it means for the UK to be an independent state.”

EU sources said they were increasingly optimistic that agreement could be found, although time was said to be a concern.

One EU diplomat said: “There is tangible progress on a number of areas while gaps are only slowly shrinking on core issues like level playing field, governance and fisheries.

“Growing concern that the negotiation process does not proceed quickly enough to ensure the ratification of a possible agreement until the end-of-the-year deadline.

“Hope is nevertheless that negotiations can be finalised quickly if and once the necessary political decisions are taken in London.

“At the same time, EU member states are in agreement that contingency planning needs to be ramped up in parallel to the ongoing and hopefully successful EU-UK negotiation process. Still the EU needs to be prepared for every possible outcome.”

Such is the shortness of time, that Juhansone told the ambassadors it was likely they would not be able to translate the treaty of over 600 pages into all of the bloc’s 24 official languages.

France’s ambassador insisted that the translation of the treaty into French was key for Paris to approve the deal, and called for a discussion on the legal nature of the agreement within days.

If the treaty only involves EU competences, it will only need consent by 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 be brought into force on 1 January, with the national parliaments ratifying at a later date. But member states are seeking time at least for their MPs to debate the detail of the deal in the remaining month and a half.

Officials dismissed suggestions that the European parliament could give its consent after 31 December. “It is not being considered,” said one source.

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