Brexit deadline at the doorstep

EU summit on 19 November seen as last chance to reach much-needed deal

A summit of EU leaders on 19 November is now viewed by Brussels as the final deadline for a draft Brexit deal, with negotiations on Britain’s future trade and security relationship with the Union set to go to the wire, news wires reported. The negotiators teams had hoped to be able to pass on a deal to MEPs for scrutiny by 18 November to allow time for parliamentary ratification but the talks remain difficult, according to sources on both sides.

Next Thursday’s video conference summit of the EU leaders, arranged to discuss the latest developments in the coronavirus pandemic, is now being seen as a key moment in the Brexit saga. “If there isn’t good news by then, then you really have to say that time is up – it just isn’t possible,” said one senior EU diplomat. “The leaders will need to see that it is there.”

A final arbitration session between British PM Boris Johnson and the EC President Ursula von der Leyen is also a possibility should the negotiators move closer to each other’s positions on the outstanding issues. The thorniest problems to resolve remain the level of access to UK waters provided to EU fishing fleets, how to maintain fair competition rules for business, including rules on domestic subsidies, and the mechanism in the final treaty for resolving future disputes.

Downing Street has insisted that the UK needs to be able to diverge its rule book, while the EU has said it will not grant a “zero tariff, zero quota” deal if British companies are not operating under rules that are at least equivalent to those set by Brussels. Despite the difficulties, the PM said last Sunday after talking to Von der Leyen that a trade and security deal was “there to be done” and that the broad outline was already “pretty clear”.

The sliding Brexit timeline will be a cause for concern in the European parliament, where MEPs had insisted that they would need to have the agreement in front of them by next Monday to start the ratification process. It was hoped that the parliament would vote on the deal on 16 December. Sources in the European parliament said that an extraordinary sitting of the chamber may now need to be arranged for 28 December, just three days before the transition period end.

Meanwhile, Johnson suffered a heavy defeat in parliament’s upper chamber over proposed laws which would allow him to breach Britain’s EU exit treaty. The Internal Market Bill is designed to protect trade between Britain’s four nations after Brexit. It contains clauses ministers say are needed to protect Northern Ireland’s delicate status as part of the UK, but would also break international law in a “specific and limited” way.

The House of Lords voted to strip those clauses from the bill in a series of defeats for the ruling Conservative Party. The government does not have a majority in the Lords and even some high-profile Conservative members opposed the clauses. “The government should see sense, accept the removal of these offending clauses, and start to rebuild our international reputation,” Angela Smith, the opposition Labour Party’s leader in the Lords, said.

But far from backing down the government said it would retable the contentious clauses when the bill returns to the House of Commons, where it had previously passed by 340 votes to 256. “We’ve been consistently clear that the clauses represent a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market and the huge gains of the (Northern Ireland) peace process,” a government spokeswoman said.

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