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13th Apr 2024

EU sets Brexit 'deadline of deadlines'

  • Juncker attempted to boost May by calling her a 'tough negotiator' on Monday (Photo: European Commission)

The UK risks delaying getting a green light for Brexit talks on transition, trade and future relations, if prime minister Theresa May does not present proposals for the terms of divorce this week, a senior EU diplomat said Tuesday (5 December).

EU leaders at next week's summit were expected to agree on negotiating guidelines for the second phase of Brexit talks if enough progress is achieved on the issues of citizens' rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement.

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But with Monday's breakdown of talks in Brussels on the Northern Irish issue, time is running out for member states to prepare the necessary documents.

"The 'deadline of deadlines' is this week," an EU diplomat said.

"If a proposal doesn't come this week, the EU 27 will not have enough time to prepare new guidelines for the summit," the diplomat added, referring to the proposals on the divorce issues.

The EU Commission was expected to officially recommend a move onto the next phase on Wednesday (6 December), if a deal had emerged from British prime minster Theresa May's talks and lunch with commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday.

EU leaders are tasked with deciding at next week's EU summit if enough progress has been achieved in negotiations and adopt the formal guidelines that would serve as the basis for the talks in the next phase on transition and the future relations.

"We are waiting for a good proposal on Wednesday," the diplomat said, with specuation May might travel to Brussels again that day.

The diplomat said work would continue even if the guidelines are not adopted, suggesting they could be adopted at a later stage by EU leaders.

EU ambassadors meet on Wednesday evening, hoping they would have a chance to discuss the draft guidelines prepared by European Council president Donald Tusk's team.

EU policy advisors to leaders will meet next Monday to refine the guidelines, and European affairs ministers will also have a look next Tuesday, two days before the summit begins.

So far member states have not yet seen the guidelines, and a last minute disagreement on its contents cannot be ruled out.

Under pressure

May came under fierce fire at home after she could not secure a Brexit divorce deal.

The tentative deal on the divorce issues collapsed dramatically after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – a key ally of May's minority government in parliament – refused the deal at the very last moment, saying it could not accept internal barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK.

Dublin wanted and received guarantees from the UK that a hard border on the island of Ireland will be avoided by "continued regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the EU.

Opposition Labour party's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer called on May to put post-Brexit membership of the single market and the customs union under discussion in talks with the European Union.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon also called on the Labour party to work together to change the terms of Brexit.

Alignment for all

Meanwhile in London on Tuesday, Brexit minister David Davis told parliament that "regulatory alignment" with the EU was understood to be for the entire UK.

He said any suggestion that the British government would leave only one part of the United Kingdom in the customs union was wrong.

"The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom," he said.

Davis argued that "alignment is not harmonisation"; that is, not having the same rules, but mutually-recognised rules.

Claiming that there was understanding that the UK government would agree to a regulatory alignment for the whole of the UK goes against the understanding that the scuppered Brexit deal referred to Northern Ireland only.

Scotland's Sturgeon, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Wales' first minister Carwyn Jones also said Monday they should be allowed to stay to some extent in the single market.

An MP for the DUP, Nigel Dodds, said that despite several briefings last weeks, the DUP only received the written text of the proposed Brexit deal late Monday morning. Then the party immediately said the deal was unacceptable, torpedoing Monday's carefully-orchestrated meetings in Brussels.

The DUP would not allow any settlement that allowed economic divergence between Northern Ireland and the UK, he added.

MPs said May was "humiliated" on Monday, and called the day's events an "embarrassment".

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