EU leaders converge on Brussels for summit as spectre of no-deal Brexit looms large

In a pre-summit briefing for reporters, a senior EU official admitted that “time is running out” to broker a Brexit trade deal by the end of this month, adding, “we need to see movement.”

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

15 Oct 2020

Not all 27 EU leaders will be present at the summit on Thursday and Friday and Council President Charles Michel, in his invitation letter, said, “We will meet in a difficult context.”

The second Council summit in less than a month will see attendees wearing masks and access to the venue will be strictly restricted with no reporters allowed on site.

In a pre-summit briefing for reporters, a senior EU official said that leaders will be “informed” of the current state of the Brexit talks, adding, “we have seen some progress on some files but there is still a lot of distance to be covered and a lot of work to be done, particularly on three issues: governance, fisheries and the level playing field.”

A special, separate summit on Brexit may be needed before the end of the year but the official said, “we do not want to speculate on that just yet.”

He said, “the level playing field is key to the single market and, without it, can lead to unfair completion. This is a concern for all EU leaders.”

Fisheries, he said, is another “important” issue to be resolved, particularly for coastal states, while governance “is key to a sound agreement.”

“We need to ensure we can trust a partner and we still want to strike a deal in good faith.”

“We have seen some progress on some files but there is still a lot of distance to be covered and a lot of work to be done, particularly on three issues: governance, fisheries and the level playing field” Senior EU official

Boris Johnson has said he wants “big progress” by the end of the two-day summit but there is growing speculation the discussions could go on to the end of December.

A draft Council conclusion says that the talks need to intensify and, when asked further about this, the EU official said, “This means we need a deal ready by 1 January.”

“Some may look for excuses on why the talks have not been moving forward but I cannot comment on that. We just expect the UK to move forward and negotiate in good faith.”

The same sentiments were echoed this week by German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth, who said the negotiations are now at “a very, very critical stage.”

“And we are now under very serious time pressure,” said Roth, adding, “We will see in the next few days whether a positive outcome can be achieved or whether we have to intensify our preparations for a scenario without an agreement.”

“The talks really haven’t made progress but let me be very clear - and this is also a message to our British friends - no one should play down the risks of a No Deal.”

“In the midst of the most serious economic downturn in decades a No Deal would inflict [on] our citizens yet another serious economic setback. It’s now up to the UK to make the decisive steps in key areas, in particular level-playing field, governance and fisheries.”

“In the midst of the most serious economic downturn in decades a No Deal would inflict [on] our citizens yet another serious economic setback. It’s now up to the UK to make the decisive steps in key areas” Michael Roth, German European Affairs Minister

The summit, to be opened later on Thursday with a speech by Parliament’s President David Sassoli, will also focus on climate issues and EU plans to increase its 2030 emission reduction target. This, said the EU official, is “seen as being crucial if we want to stick to our collective objective for 2050.”

Angela Merkel said last week that she hoped all EU countries would back a 55 percent cut.

The EU official said the summit will also deal with another “important debate: our relationship with Africa.”

“We should have had a summit this summer with the African Union. This was postponed to 2021 but we will still have high level meetings with African leaders soon.”

The draft Council text says the EU “attaches high priority to strengthening its strategic relations with Africa and its partnership with the African Union, which remain based on mutual interests and shared responsibility.”

The second day of the summit will be dedicated to the Coronavirus crisis.

The official said, “The EU leaders will meet in person, not virtually. We are following the evolution of the crisis closely, but Charles Michel values the importance of face-to-face talks on such sensitive discussions.”

“We have already this year organised two physical summits and this is the third. We will ensure everyone’s safety, including restricting the size of delegations, the flow of circulation and mask wearing. All these things will make close contact impossible. Everyone is aware of this.”

On Tuesday, the Commission adopted a strategy on vaccines which seeks to ensure vaccine access to everyone and the official added, “we have seen a more coordinated approach on the mapping of Europe but there is still work to be done.”

The summit is expected  to issue a call for more and better coordination of the response to the crisis and the Council draft “calls on the Commission and the Member States to continue the overall coordination effort, notably regarding quarantine regulations, cross border contact tracing and the joint assessment of testing methods.”

In his letter to EU leaders, Michel said, “We will meet in a difficult context. We are seeing COVID infections rise and we have a number of pressing issues on our agenda, including our relations with the UK.”

“It is in the interests of both sides to have an agreement in place before the end of the transition period. This cannot, however, happen at any price. The coming days are decisive. I will invite our negotiator to update us on the latest developments. Key issues include, in particular, the level playing field, fisheries and governance.”

On Africa, he added, “Our objective is to renew and deepen our political relations, taking them to a higher level, based on mutual respect and the willingness to accommodate each other's interests.”

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