Michel Barnier has told MEPs that striking a post-Brexit trade and security deal by Friday is “difficult but possible”, as the European parliament said it needed agreement by midnight on Sunday to hold a consent vote this year.
During a briefing with leaders of the parliament’s political groups, the EU’s chief negotiator cautioned against setting a deadline that could not be met after Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right European People’s party, said Friday should be the cut-off point.
Barnier said he could relay that message to the UK negotiators but he suggested that pushing the parliament’s deadline back to the end of the weekend would be wiser, given the remaining difficulties in the talks over EU access to British fishing waters.
In a subsequent statement, the parliament’s leaders, apart from the Greens who withheld their backing, said they would hold a vote on 28 December if there was agreement by midnight on Sunday 21 December.
Deadlines have come and gone throughout the Brexit talks but the move suggests that a weekend agreement is becoming increasingly likely despite talks over access to British fishing waters remaining difficult.
The EU member states could still provisionally apply a deal before 31 December, to avoid the UK leaving the transition without new arrangements with the bloc, even without the parliament giving its consent.
MEPs would then vote in January after holding debates in committee and a full plenary session, but the European commission is opposed to going ahead without parliament having its say in the remaining three weeks of this year.
Barnier told MEPs that given all sides were against so-called provisional application of a deal, there may need to be a few weeks where no new arrangements were in place, raising the stakes for a deal in the next 72 hours.
Barnier told the leaders that fisheries was now the most difficult issue, with David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, insisting that because the UK had moved on the issue of future standards the onus was on the EU to compromise on fishing demands.
Barnier said that in accepting that the UK would have the unilateral ability to close its waters after a transition period, the EU had already moved. He added that the UK would repatriate a significant amount of the catch currently taken by European fishing vessels in British seas, although not the 60% being sought.
There is also a debate over EU access to the zone six to 12 nautical miles from the UK’s coastline, with Downing Street insisting it should be for exclusive use by British vessels.
On a range of other problematic issues, agreement has been struck including the right where there is a breach of the treaty for one side to trigger cross-suspension, where if a problem arises in one sector, action can be taken in another.
Barnier said the UK was seeking to leave financial services out of the mechanism but Brussels was pushing for its inclusion.
He told the MEPs that the UK had shifted on the previous big sticking point of the evolution clause, whereby there would be a route to unilateral tariffs should there be evidence that regulatory divergence was leading to one side losing out.
Discussions on state aid were continuing, he said, with many of the issues resolved, but the EU wanted European businesses to go to the UK courts should there be evidence that rules on subsidy control had not been followed.