EU ambassadors expected to begin process for three-month Brexit extension

EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has been asked to continue to oversee evolving EU/UK relationship after Brexit

Michel Barnier: he said his new role would be about “rebuilding” ties after Brexit marked the “unpicking of 45 years of co-operation”. Photograph: Getty Images

Michel Barnier: he said his new role would be about “rebuilding” ties after Brexit marked the “unpicking of 45 years of co-operation”. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Ambassadors of the EU27 are expected on Friday morning to set in train the process to endorse a three-month Brexit extension to January 31st to allow the UK House of Commons to complete scrutiny of Brexit legislation.

The not-unexpected announcement on Thursday night by Boris Johnson of a timeframe for the debate and a subsequent election in December is unlikely to affect the ambassadors’ decision, not least because of the uncertainty about whether the British prime minister can get his plans approved by MPs.

The process may well get stretched out into January, and EU leaders will not want to be seen to force an unnecessary no-deal exit.

Diplomats in Brussels suggest there are still some lingering doubts about whether the French will block an emerging consensus to agree the British extension request as it stands.

Paris still maintains a shorter extension would be preferable, but Johnson’s announcement would appear to make that option moot and his call for an election meets one of President Emmanuel Macron’s main demands.

European Council president Donald Tusk, who has recommended the longer extension, backed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, has engaged in a lengthy series of consultations with the capitals to test the water. European Parliament leaders also backed the longer extension at a meeting on Thursday.

Unanimous agreement by the ambassadors would see the formal decisions taken by “written procedure” and obviate the need for an emergency summit early next week.

The member states are expected to agree again, as they did for the last extension, that the UK will be allowed to leave earlier than January 31st if and when it ratifies the EU-UK withdrawal agreement; if the British prime minister’s schedule is successfully followed through that would see the UK leave the EU on December 2nd with a deal.

Negotiating strands

Meanwhile the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been asked by the European Commission, with the backing of incoming president Ursula von der Leyen, to continue to oversee the evolving EU/UK relationship once Brexit has happened.

Mr Barnier has been asked to head a “UK Task Force” that will be charged with co-ordinating the separate negotiating strands on the future EU/UK relationship, expected to involve 12 separate directorates and including such disparate areas as judicial affairs, the economy, defence, and foreign policy.

Talks are due to start once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, and are expected to take several years.

The most crucial and difficult of these strands will be on a free trade agreement,  and will be conducted by the EU trade directorate under its new commissioner Phil Hogan and its new secretary general Sabine Weyand, Mr Barnier’s deputy for most of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. Officials insist that Mr Hogan’s role has not been diminished by the Barnier appointment.

Speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Mr Barnier said his new role would be about “rebuilding” ties after Brexit marked the “unpicking of 45 years of co-operation”.  Mr Barnier will keep his current Brexit task force team and take over responsibility for its unfinished business and for the work being done on “no-deal planning”.

French commissioner

It had been speculated that Mr Barnier was to be nominated as the French commissioner by Mr Macron after MEPs blocked the nomination of Sylvie Goulard. On Thursday former economy minister Thierry Breton got the nod instead from Paris.

Although the nomination leaves the von der Leyen Commission unbalanced from a gender point of view, it is expected it will be accepted – despite Mr Breton’s having business connections that may raise hackles at the EU parliamentary hearing.

The new commission was due to take office on November 1st but its start date was delayed after the European Parliament rejected three nominees. It is now expected to take office at the beginning of December at the earliest. 

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