Hopes for Brexit deal rise after European Parliament sets Sunday deadline


Michel Barnier told the leaders of the parliament’s political groups that the deal was 'difficult but possible' - Olivier Hoslet/AFP
Michel Barnier told the leaders of the parliament’s political groups that the deal was ‘difficult but possible’ – Olivier Hoslet/AFP

A Brexit trade deal could be done this weekend after the European Parliament on Thursday set a deadline of this Sunday for the agreement to be finalised. 

MEPs had wanted to impose a deadline of Friday for Boris Johnson to cave to EU demands but pushed the date back on the advice of Michel Barnier. 

The EU’s chief negotiator told the leaders of the parliament’s political groups that the deal was “difficult but possible” in a meeting in Brussels. 

He urged them to think about how bad another missed Brexit deadline would look and said that talks over fishing rights remained tough

MEPs later threatened to refuse to ratify any finalised Brexit trade deal unless they had the text of the agreement by midnight on Sunday local time. 

They said any later would not give them time to properly scrutinise the agreement before a vote to ratify it on December 28, four days before the end of year no-deal deadline.

“From what we heard, they are close to an agreement,” a European Parliament official said.

“The agreement is too important to rush through Parliament”, said Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-Right European People’s Party, which is the largest group in the European Parliament.

“We give until Sunday to Boris Johnson to make a decision. The uncertainty hanging over citizens and businesses as a result of UK choices becomes intolerable,” said Dacian Ciolos, the leader of the liberal Renew Europe group in the parliament.

If the Sunday deadline is missed and the European Parliament carries out its threat, Britain will be likely to face a short no-deal period of trading on WTO terms before the agreement is ratified. 

The parliament is under pressure from EU member states to ratify the deal or agree to provisionally apply it before the end of year deadline. 

That would mean the agreement would enter into force at the end of the transition period, and be confirmed or struck down later in a European Parliament vote in the new year. 

Despite hopes rising in Brussels that a trade deal could be done, Michael Gove put the chances of a deal being done at “less than 50 percent”. 

The Minister for the Cabinet Office said there were “fewer areas of difference now than there were” but the areas of difference were “still significant”.

The House of Commons rose for Christmas at the close of Thursday’s business, but MPs have been put on standby to be recalled if a trade deal is secured.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office told MPs: “We believe we can pass the necessary legislation before December 31 to give businesses legal certainty for the future”.

Downing Street said they did not believe it would be necessary to require MPs to sit on Christmas Day.

There were further signs in Brussels that a trade deal could be edging closer. 

Negotiators are working on legal language to reassure Danish and Dutch companies that Britain will not “nationalise” their UK-flagged fishing boats after Brexit.

Brussels was furious that the UK asked for rules allowing it to set qualifying terms for boats to be counted as UK vessels, and so eligible for the increased quota expected after Brexit. 

EU sources said talks were underway to find the right formulation of words to reassure the EU that the UK is not going to expropriate the foreign-owned fleet, which catches about 55 per cent of all UK quota. Britain would prefer to focus on boosting the amount of catch landed in the UK. 

EU sources said the two sides were divided over the length of a transition period to phase in the new fishing arrangements. The UK wants it to last three years, but the EU has called for ten years. 

Discussions are also ongoing on the quotas for the 100 different shared fish stocks. One EU diplomat predicted a solution would be found. “It is a numbers game now,” the source said. 

Although Britain has agreed to the principle of a “rebalancing mechanism” on the level playing field, some divisions remain on how the system of ensuring fair competition will work. 

The mechanism will allow both sides to respond with tariffs if the one side splits too far from the other’s standards. British negotiators made the concession after the EU agreed that any such decisions would involve arbitration rather than being simply unilateral. 

An EU demand that funding from Brussels, including a €750 billion coronavirus economic stimulus package, be exempt from subsidy rules is still being rejected by the British, who argue the UK has no similar access to supra-national funds. 

Mr Barnier told MEPs that a deal had been made on public procurement, which he said was “very good”. 

Britain will offer EU companies pitching for public sector contracts equal treatment to UK ones and vice versa, under the agreement, which Mr Barnier said was “very good”. 

The UK had called for procurement to be based on WTO rules but changed its position. European firms have large interests in the UK, and this will help ensure they can pitch for public contracts such as running rail franchises.

The European Commission also announced that the UK and EU had endorsed decisions on the joint implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. 

The agreement paved the way for the Government to remove no-deal clauses in the Internal Market Bill related to Northern Ireland, which breached the treaty and broke international law. Brussels said it would never ratify a deal if the clauses were in place. 

The Government announced an extra £200m funding for peace programmes in Northern Ireland, and that UK travellers visiting the EU will continue to receive support for ongoing healthcare treatment even if there is no deal.



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