Theresa May is due in Brussels this week just as the finishing touches are being put on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as well as the Political Declaration, the outline for a future free trade deal.
Amid the rows over the ‘divorce deal’ back in the UK, talks have been continuing this weekend.
At lunchtime today Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, met with ambassadors from the other 27 member states.
He’s seeking political approval for the withdrawal deal. He got that - they largely nodded it through to the next stage, a meeting of Europe ministers tomorrow and then a summit of EU leaders next Sunday.
At the meeting, where the deal itself was described by one EU diplomat as a “balanced compromise”, one key missing link in the document was filled in - at least provisionally.
If you have read through the 585 page draft withdrawal treaty, then you may have spotted the date for the end of a possible extension to the transition period was listed as “20xx”.
As it stands the UK leaves on March the 29th next year. A transition period then runs until December 2020.
Talk of the need for an extension beyond that date first emerged at the EU summit last month.
Theresa May said it would only be “a matter of months” and only needed if no trade deal had been agreed. It’s to avoid having to use the dreaded ‘backstop’, designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Today Michel Barnier suggested that “20xx” could read as “2022”.
Now that has to be agreed between the UK and EU this week. However, the risk for Downing Street at this volatile stage is that that 2022 date is seized on by opponents to the Prime Minister and presented as “the UK could possibly stay in the EU for another four years”.
Hardly helpful right now. Of course, there are plenty of ifs and buts before an extension would ever be used or needed but, in a febrile atmosphere, this can be seen as the EU pushing the UK into accepting “yet another concession”.
An extension of the transition would, after all, see the UK staying in the status quo without a voice and another two years in the EU could cost around twenty billion pounds.
Meanwhile, talks have been continuing between the UK and EU negotiation teams on the Political Declaration.
The six-page document, published alongside the legally binding withdrawal deal last week, aims to set out the outline terms of a future trade deal. This document has now been expanded to 20 pages. There wasn’t much to negotiate.
It was described to me as just putting agreed “puzzle pieces” together and fleshing out the wording.
If you dislike the withdrawal deal then you’ll also detest the Political Declaration.
It envisages that the UK stays as close as possible for trade, has to accept reciprocal fishing rights and a level playing field for consumer protection, for example.
To a large extent that’s where the Prime Minister’s opponents get their claims that the divorce deal, with its status quo transition, will end up flowing into a trade deal that doesn’t differ that much.
Yes, of course, the future trade deal will all have to be negotiated and those talks haven’t started yet, but it sets a direction of travel.
This week in Brussels the withdrawal deal will be locked down, and fast.
- ITV News Correspondent Angus Walker on the political reaction in Brussels
Ministers meet tomorrow to give their approval and the summit on Sunday will be a rubber stamp exercise.
The Political Declaration is then due to be published on Tuesday.
We can expect Theresa May to come over and meet with Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, once that’s done.
Then we have the summit on Sunday, so there’s not much room for any more significant negotiation.
The Withdrawal Deal itself, barring the “20xx” date I’ve already mentioned, is not going to be unpicked. The summit itself is not a ‘negotiating summit’ anyway.
The Prime Minister will be like a mother at a christening, having the deal she’s struck anointed by fellow EU leaders.
Downing Street is right to say there’s plenty more negotiation to come, the trade deal hasn’t been formalised, we’re a long way from that, but trade talks only start if what has already been agreed and is being finalised this week is accepted.
One huge caveat: moving on into a post-divorce deal scenario and forging a future relationship depends on the small matter of the Withdrawal Deal getting through parliament… as Theresa May herself said on TV today “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.