EU officials issue warning over deal as leaders’ summit looms

Any slippage in a new UK offer beyond Monday makes the timeframe almost impossible

The EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier:  the three priority issues are citizens rights, the financial settlement, and the Irish Border. Photograph: AFP/ Tobias Schwarz/Getty Images

The EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier: the three priority issues are citizens rights, the financial settlement, and the Irish Border. Photograph: AFP/ Tobias Schwarz/Getty Images

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Michel Barnier’s virtual ticking clock is no ordinary timepiece. Like the clock in High Noon, it seems to be ticking louder and faster by the day as next week’s EU summit looms large, and with it the hope of moving Brexit talks on to their next phase. Every day counts.

EU officials and diplomats warned on Sunday that it was still unclear that a deal would be struck with British prime minister Theresa May when she meets European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker for lunch today.

Whatever concessions May offers have to be translated into written commitments for the two sets of negotiators and evaluated by Barnier’s task force.

If he sees “sufficient progress” on the three priority issues – citizens rights, the financial settlement, and the Irish Border – he will draft with the council secretariat and president Donald Tusk, a formal statement for the summit accepting as much. But even before it goes to the summit he has to run his recommendation past EU ambassadors (meeting at 27), then representatives of MEPs, and finally the General Affairs Council (meeting at 27 next Tuesday).

Any slippage in a new UK offer beyond today makes the timeframe almost impossible. The leaders at a summit do not discuss “uncooked” agenda items, and the prospect is of the opening of second phase talks on trade and transition being put back to March.

It’s not just the Irish Border that is the obstacle. Although an agreement on how to calculate the UK Brexit bill is close to being agreed – put at between €40 billion and €60 billion – there are still details to be hammered out which May is expected to clarify.

And on citizens rights, an unwillingness by the UK to contemplate using the European Court of Justice to resolve disputes remains an impediment. There are also open points of negotiation about family reunification, including the rights of children not yet born to citizens who will retain residency rights in the UK or EU.

‘Sufficient progress’

On Ireland key elements of agreement are well advanced. The UK commitment to continuing the Common Travel Area and to safeguarding the as-many-as 142 programmes of cross-Border co-operation are understood to be seen as close to the yardstick of “sufficient progress”.

But how to safeguard the “frictionless” Border is the thorniest issue. May will need to give her strong imprimatur to discussions taking place at official level and which are understood to focus on how “regulatory convergence” between the EU and UK can be sustained post-Brexit. How this can be done without the necessity of confronting the unionist objections to treating the North apart from the rest of the UK is far from clear.

The reality that the UK may be working to create a bespoke customs union/single market may also excite Brexiteers in her own ranks.

But, as council president Donald Tusk made clear on Friday in his visit to Dublin, fudging the issue in the hope something can be done in the second round will not be acceptable. His trip was about sending a timely signal to the UK that Ireland does not stand alone in this regard and that rumours in London that the EU 26 will pressurise the Irish to moderate their position to allow the move to phase two are wishful thinking.

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