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Brexit talks are running out of time, with today’s summit of EU leaders on Thursday now being seen by Brussels as the final deadline for a draft deal with the UK. Negotiations on Britain’s future trade and security relationships with Europe are expected to go to the wire on Thursday as the bloc’s 27 heads of state and Government discuss a range of issues including the coronavirus pandemic. The video call is being seen as a key moment in the Brexit timeline – a deal was expected to have been drafted by the time the meeting starts this afternoon, but so far negotiations have reached a stalemate.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier won’t brief ambassadors on the state of play on the negotiations ahead of the summit, two EU officials said.
EU ambassadors had originally pencilled in a briefing from Mr Barnier at their meeting on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s conference in the hopes of securing a draft agreement.
Stretching the deadline past this week makes ratification of the deal significantly more difficult for Brussels, EU officials have previously stressed, as they claim both bloc countries and the European parliament need time to scrutinise the agreement.
One senior EU diplomat said: “If there isn’t good news by then, then you really have to say that time is up – it just isn’t possible. The leaders will need to see that it is there.”
The biggest issues left to iron out remain the level of access to UK water which will be provided to EU fisheries, how to maintain fair competition rules in business, and the way in which future disputes will be resolved between the UK and the bloc.
UK sources have complained that Brussels has so far failed to show “realism” about the scale of change to the fishing opportunities provided to the EU.
Progress is being made on how the two sides’ domestic subsidy regimes would work, but there are still a number of complications in terms of establishing a mechanism in which environmental, labour and social standards would develop at the same level for both sides.
Downing Street insists the UK need to be able to divert its rule book, while the EU has warned it will not give Britain a “zero tariff, zero quota” deal if British firms don’t at least comply to the same business rules as those set by Brussels.
A UK source said: “We have a different view from the EU on what is appropriate on level playing field issues.
“We have been clear that we can look at common principles for our different subsidy systems and perhaps even at the ability to act if a major subsidy genuinely distorts trade.
“What we can’t agree to are arrangements which would require us to operate systems of law equivalent to the EU’s and make us pay a penalty if we moved away from them.
“We need policy space to decide what is in the UK’s interest in the future. The is the very essence of what Brexit is about.”
Despite the clear obstacles, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday a trade deal was “there to be done” and that the broad outline was “pretty clear”.
The ever-extending timeline will come as a concern for members of the European Parliament, where MEPs insisted they would need to have a deal drafted by Monday at the latest to begin the ratification process.
It was hoped the Parliament would vote on the final deal on December 16, but that is looking ever more unlikely.
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Sources in the European parliament have said a sitting of the chamber may need to be arranged for December 28, just three days before the transition period ends.
The Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said he believed a deal could be made despite the divisive difference between the two sides.
Mr Coveney said: “If we can overcome those issues, in particular fish which is very emotive and very political, then I think we can get a deal done.
“If we can’t get a deal done it will represent an extraordinary failure of politics and diplomacy.”
What time does the EU summit start?
The EU summit will be held via video conference and begin tonight at 6pm – but Brexit isn’t officially on the agenda.
The EU website reads: “This meeting will focus on the EU response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It comes as a follow up to the video conference held on October 29, where EU leaders highlighted the need to strengthen the collective effort to fight the pandemic and focused on testing and tracing policies and on vaccines.
“At a previous meeting on October 15 and 16, the leaders discussed coordination at EU level against COVID-19 again agreed to revert regularly to this matter.”
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