BRUSSELS: European ministers signed off on Britain’s draft divorce deal on Monday as they launched a “painful” final week of negotiations on future cross-Channel ties.
Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Union’s Austrian rotating presidency said the negotiated text would be presented to EU leaders at a signing summit on Sunday.
“The first, difficult step is done,” said Austrian European affairs minister Gernot Bluemel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, after the ministers’ meeting. “A painful week in European politics is starting,” he warned. “We have the divorce papers on the table. Forty-five years of difficult marriage are coming to an end.”
Meanwhile, detailed discussions continue on a parallel political statement setting out the bloc’s ambitions for future relations with post-Brexit Britain — and on a possible extension to the transition period.
Britain will leave the Union on March 29 next year, but remain within its single market for a further 21 months as negotiators seek a deal to avoid a potential breakdown in trade between the key economic partners.
If the parties struggle to find a deal before the end of this period, Britain can request a one-off extension. Barnier has suggested that this should expire at the end of 2022, but he said member states have yet to sign off on this.
Neither European member states, who want to protect access to their single market, nor hardline British Brexiteers, who fear being trapped in a bloc where they don’t make the rules, want an endless transition.
Barnier stressed it was Prime Minister Theresa May’s British government that requested the extension option and warned: “It can’t be indefinite. It needs to be decided.”
In London, May said she wants to reach a trade deal by the end of 2020 to avoid asking for an extension, but that if the transition is prolonged it should be out of the way by “the next general election”.
If May survives domestic anger over the deal, the next British election is scheduled for 2022.
Preparations continued meanwhile for Sunday’s summit, where May and her 27 colleagues are supposed to sign the withdrawal agreement. “We’re in the closing stages of negotiating the deal at the moment,” she said. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
May will be in Brussels this week to see the president of the EU commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, but her spokesman could not say when she would arrive.
While the EU 27 have remained publicly united through the 17-month negotiation, Britain’s political camps are fighting bitterly among themselves.
Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2018