By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — European Parliament lawmakers have set a Sunday (20 December) deadline for a post-Brexit trade deal to be completed in order for them to debate and vote on it before the UK’s transition period ends on 31 December.
From January, the UK and EU will trade on World Trade Organisation terms, with customs and tariffs, unless a new trade agreement is finalised and ratified.
Following a meeting with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday (17 December), the leaders of the Parliament’s political groups stated that the institution “stands ready to organise an extraordinary plenary session towards the end of December, in case an agreement is reached by midnight on Sunday 20th December, for the European Parliament to debate the outcome of negotiations and consider granting its consent.”
For its part, the House of Commons will go into recess at the end of Thursday but will return if required to vote on an EU-UK trade deal, the government has confirmed.
While any agreement would also have to be ratified by national parliaments across the EU-27, disruption could be avoided if a new trade treaty was provisionally agreed.
Although it would be theoretically possible for both sides to extend the transition period and the talks, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected this out of hand.
On Thursday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told UK lawmakers that trade talks would not resume in the New Year if no agreement can be finalised in the coming days. “That would be it,” said Gove, adding that “there would, of course, still be contact but we would not be attempting to negotiate a new deal”.
EU leaders have sounded an optimistic tone in the past couple of days.
Tweeting after his meeting with MEPs, Barnier said that “in this final stretch of talks, transparency and unity are important as ever.”
“Good progress, but last stumbling blocks remain. We will only sign a deal protecting EU interests and principles,” he added.
On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs that there was “a path to an agreement”, and that fisheries and the so-called ‘level playing field’ were the two remaining outstanding issues between the two sides.
Barnier told the Parliament’s political group leaders that since the UK had made concessions on future regulatory standards, London expected the EU to soften its demands on fishing rights for EU vessels in British waters.
The UK argues that fish in the zone between six to 12 nautical miles from the UK’s coastline should only be caught by British vessels.
However, in London, the mood music is less positive as UK ministers continue to play down the likelihood of a deal being reached.
Gove said that the UK was “more likely than not” to leave on World Trade Organisation terms, adding that “regrettably, the chances of no-deal are more likely, so less than 50%”.