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 only “slowly shrinking”, EU ambassadors have been told.
With Michel Barnier in self-isolation following the news that an EU negotiator has been tested positive for coronavirus, the talks will be conducted almost entirely by videoconference 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 European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, also offered fresh cause for optimism. She said: “After difficult weeks with very, very slow progress now we have seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files. There are still quite some metres to the finish line, so there’s still a lot of work to do.”
The familiar problems of EU access to UK fishing waters and the design of a mechanism to ensure neither side can distort trade through undercutting standards remained unresolved but the differences were being gradually bridged, sources said.
An 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.”
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.
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.
Such is the shortness of time, that Juhansone told the ambassadors they would likely not be able to translate the treaty of over 600 pages into all of the bloc’s 23 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 ratification 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 the member states are seeking time at least for their MPs to debate the detail of the deal in the remaining month and a half.
A large number of the ambassadors also called on the European commission to publish contingency proposals “as soon as possible given the late stage of the negotiations and the possibility of accidents in the last six weeks”, a source said.