Brexit transition deal far from a ‘sure thing’, Barnier warns

EU set to publish draft withdrawal agreement, with focus on text dealing with Border

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: Said there would be “no surprises” in the withdrawal agreement. Photograph:  John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: Said there would be “no surprises” in the withdrawal agreement. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images


EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned EU27 ministers on Tuesday that in the face of “plenty of differences” between the EU and UK, agreement on a Brexit transition remains far from “a sure thing”. Agreement on transition is key to opening phase two talks on the EU-UK future relationship.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator gave ministers in Brussels an update on the negotiations and set out the broad outlines of the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement, which the commission is due to publish on Wednesday and which will then be negotiated with the UK.

Mr Barnier said there would be “no surprises” in the withdrawal agreement – consisting of 168 articles in 100 pages of text – but warned again of running out of time, not least with 3½ weeks to go before the next EU summit.

Mr Barnier insisted, in response to DUP claims that the draft agreement’s expected requirement of “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland represents an attack on UK sovereignty, that “our responsibility is simply to put into the withdrawal agreement before the autumn solutions that operationalise in legal language what we, the EU and the UK, agreed in the December joint agreement”.

Fair representation

Irish and EU officials insist that the agreement is simply a fair representation of what the UK agreed to, and not an attempt to extend obligations or commitments. London is unhappy with the union’s unwillingness to treat all Border options equally in the text – an impossibility, officials say, because several such options are merely aspirational.

They also insist that a protocol to the agreement has the some legal standing as any treaty text.

Mr Barnier said that a protocol would put into legal form the UK’s fallback “no deal” position, cited in paragraph 49 of the December accord. “I am ready to work immediately on the other options set out in paragraph 49,” he said. “And if there are better solutions we will withdraw this and apply the new solutions.” But the EU could not leave a void in the agreement, he said.

Mr Barnier also echoed EU Council president Donald Tusk’s robust denunciation on Friday of new UK negotiating proposals for “three baskets” of regulatory provisions, from closely aligned to divergent. He shared the Tusk view: “It is illusory to imagine we could accept cherry-picking . . . We are responsible for safeguarding the internal market.”

He cited areas of disagreements with the UK, from the date of conclusion of transition – the commission has specified the end of 2020 – to disagreements about the “dynamic application of transition”, or how to deal with changes to EU regulations and law during transition. The UK, he said, also wants to treat EU citizens who settle in the UK during that period differently.

‘No divergence’

In the European Parliament, reporting on the broad outlines of the agreement, Guy Verhofstadt, the chair of its Brexit steering group, insisted that the best way to protect the Belfast Agreement, the common travel area and to prevent a hardening of the Border, would be through “no divergence” in norms, rules and standards between North and South.

That is what, he said, he expected to see in the withdrawal agreement protocol on the Border on Wednesday.

Such ideas represent an “intolerable interference” in the internal affairs of the UK, DUP MEP Diane Dodds responded at the parliament’s constitutional affairs committee.

Ms Dodds said that the deal seems to have been proposed by the EU commission “at the behest of the Dublin government”.

But it would be “economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland”, she said, because of the heavier dependence of the North on trade with the rest of the UK than trade across the Border.

Ms Dodds accused the EU of doing what it accused the UK of – “cherrypicking” the December agreement, specifically by ignoring its paragraph 50 in which the UK expresses its intention not to erect obstacles to trade between the North and the rest of the UK.

Tory MEP Daniel Hanan tweeted that “I’m starting to think that these talks may fail. The UK has again offered close co-operation in good faith. Guy Verhofstadt responds by telling MEPs that Northern Ireland must have identical regulations to the Republic. He must know that no British government could accept that.”