BRUSSELS • The European Union's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday said the draft Brexit deal reached with London was "fair and balanced", as the bloc haggled with Britain over any extension to the envisaged transition period.
Mr Barnier told a news conference the 27 national EU ministers generally approved of the draft divorce agreement reached last week, and that a blank in the document on the end date for a possible extension of the status-quo transition period should be resolved for a summit on Sunday.
"The deal is fair and balanced," Mr Barnier said.
"We are in fact at a decisive moment in this process; no one should lose sight of the progress that has been achieved in Brussels and in London," he noted.
"In particular, member states support the draft withdrawal agreement. The EU side will still have to decide the internal process for agreeing to extend the transition period."
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday told the Confederation of British Industry, the country's main business lobby group, she wanted the transition phase to have ended by the time Britain is due to hold a national election in 2022.
The transition period would keep post-Brexit Britain subject to EU rules - but without a vote - for long enough to allow details of their future relationship to be negotiated.
Mr Barnier said any extension would only be a one-off and must be limited in time. The view was echoed by the French minister at the meeting, who said it was important to offer certainty to all those affected by Britain's withdrawal.
Mr Barnier said the UK would have to make appropriate contributions to EU coffers if it were to stay in the bloc's customs union and single market beyond the currently envisaged end of the transition at end-2020, 21 months after Brexit.
The UK has been saying any extension would only be "a matter of months" but has also sought to keep it open for now. Mr Barnier insisted that a latest cut-off would be agreed this week.
Mr Barnier told EU envoys on Sunday that the bloc could propose extending the transition out to no later than Dec 31, 2022.
"We see it as a safety net if things take more time with negotiating the future relationship. But internally in the UK, it's a very hard sell and the problem is on their side to lock it in," one EU diplomat said.
Adding that date in the treaty, even as a hypothetical last resort, is all but certain to anger the Brexit supporters whose votes Mrs May needs to pass the deal in Britain's Parliament.
Further complicating the task of sealing an orderly exit agreement, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell yesterday said his government will need more clarity on the future status of Gibraltar before it is ready to support the Brexit deal.
Gibraltar, on the southern coast of Spain, is due to leave the EU along with Britain on March 29. The territory is anxious to preserve free movement of people across its border with Spain.
Spain has long claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar, a British territory since 1713.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE