Brexit talks flirt with failure as new deadline blown; 12/31 final date looms
Published: Dec 22, 2020 05:33 PM
EU and UK trade talks inched onwards under renewed pressure Monday as transport chaos triggered by the emergence of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus in Britain overshadowed efforts to reach a Brexit deal.

Nigel Farage, leader of UK Brexit Party Photo: AFP

Only 10 days are left until January 1, 2021 when Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union and hopes of securing a new arrangement suffered a blow as another deadline passed.

EU and British negotiators remained in Brussels, with talks still blocked over the right of European crew to continue fishing in Britain's rich waters, as well as concerns over fair trade rules. 

Without a deal, Britain's links to the European Union end at midnight on December 31 (11:00 pm UK time) with a new tariff barrier that will sharpen the big shock of unraveling a half-century of EU membership. A Sunday deadline set by the European Parliament, which could refuse to approve the agreement, expired without an agreement being found, leaves no time for MEPs to ratify an eventual deal before January 1, 2021.

"Political games from Westminster have wasted too much time," said German MEP Manfred Weber, who leads the conservative group in parliament, warning that members would take their time and not "rubber stamp" a text. But Weber also said parliament "will remain constructive partners" and that "alternative procedures are possible" - though what they were was not yet agreed.

As long as a deal is found in the next hours or days, European sources said this could involve a provisional implementation of a pact with MEPs having their say in January 2021.

"Broadly speaking, the EU side is of the view that the only deadline that now matters is December 31," said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy. 

Whatever the case, the EU has finalized interim plans to manage road and air transport for six months and fishing for a year in the event of a no deal - but these would also require an agreement from the UK to reciprocate.

"We remain very far from an accord," warned a European diplomat, who said that some on the EU-side were weighing whether it was time to walk away.

"Negotiating through exhaustion is not very healthy," the diplomat added.

The talks in Brussels continued as Britain was effectively cut off from the world, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus was spreading in the UK. The emergency left holiday travellers stranded and blocked goods crossing the Channel, presaging the potential effects of a failure to secure a last-minute trade deal.

France's snap decision to halt trade across the Channel forced Britain to bring forward "Operation Stack," the contingency plan drawn up to deal with anticipated freight tailbacks in the port city of Dover in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

"It's a tragedy what's happening in Britain, and this Brexit is a tragedy, we see it more and more every day," France's EU commissioner Thierry Breton told BFM Business, when asked about the new outbreak. If Britain "had chosen to remain in the European Union... today we could have helped them," Breton argued.
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