EU leaders prepare plans in case Brexit talks collapse

Britain's move to rewrite parts of divorce deal stokes distrust of PM Johnson in Europe

BRUSSELS • European Union leaders will discuss preparations for the potential collapse of trade talks with Britain when they hold a summit later this week after France dug in, questioning if it could hold British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government to any deal.

The bloc's 27 national leaders will assemble in Brussels tomorrow - the same day Mr Johnson has threatened to walk away if he considers a deal to be unlikely. With an accord hanging in the balance, the chiefs will review their contingency plans, officials said.

They will also consider the need for stringent, legally binding dispute-resolution mechanisms in any deal after being stung by Britain's announcement last month that it would unilaterally rewrite parts of the Brexit divorce agreement. The move has stoked distrust of Mr Johnson in EU capitals, adding a further obstacle to any accord and calling into question if a deal can be reached at all.

"We are well prepared for both scenarios, everybody should know that," German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth said yesterday. "No deal is the worst case scenario, not just for the European Union but also for the UK, but we are prepared for that."

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier spent yesterday updating all 27 governments in Luxembourg on the state of the deliberations. While Britain is pushing the bloc to soften its demands on fishing, the EU is demanding concessions from it, including limits on what state aid it will be allowed to provide to businesses.

The discussions about contingency planning are, to an extent, a negotiating tactic to lower expectations and put pressure on both sides to reach an accord, a senior EU diplomat with knowledge of the talks said. But he added that governments were now getting nervous about the possibility of failure, and want the European Commission to bring forward contingency measures soon.

"We do want to trust the UK, but what we have seen in the last weeks regarding the withdrawal agreement is extremely worrying," French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said on Monday. "It's a matter of how the UK is a partner of trust in the years to come," he added.

Britain's chief negotiator David Frost said last week that his team would still need to go on negotiating with the EU even if they fail to reach a free-trade agreement. He said the two sides would have to come to arrangements in areas including flights and road haulage.

But the EU is unlikely to agree to a series of such sector-by-sector mini-deals, an official said. If talks collapse, the bloc would focus on striking agreements with Britain only where it sees an urgent need and where failing to do so would damage its economy.

Mr Johnson held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend in an attempt to break the deadlock. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said on Monday that there was little time left but that the government was committed to working hard to bridge its differences with the bloc.

France, though, has yet to signal it is prepared to offer any concessions over fisheries that would unlock a deal, and has so far rebuffed attempts by Mr Barnier and other EU countries to make compromises, a second EU official said.

"Frankly speaking, we are at a critical stage of the negotiations," said Mr Roth. "We are extremely under pressure, time is running out, and we expect substantial progress by our friends in the UK in key areas."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2020, with the headline 'EU leaders prepare plans in case Brexit talks collapse'. Subscribe