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 bloc set to go to the wire.
The teams of negotiators working in London 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 27 heads of state and government, 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 Boris Johnson and the European commission 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.
UK sources have complained that Brussels has as yet failed to show enough “realism” about the scale of the change to the level of fishing opportunities the EU member states’ fleet will have in Britain’s exclusive economic zone from next year.
On ensuring a so-called “level playing field” for businesses in the UK and the EU, progress is being made on how the two sides’ domestic subsidy regimes would operate but difficulties remain in establishing a mechanism whereby a baseline of environmental, labour and social standards would develop in tandem for both sides.
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 prime minister said on Sunday that a trade and security deal was “there to be done” and that the broad outline was already “pretty clear”. Johnson spoke to Von der Leyen on Saturday.
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 end of the transition period when the UK leaves the single market and customs union.