And the bloc is already gearing up for a summit in June which will be pivotal in deciding a way forward – with arrangements for the Irish border likely to top the agenda. Boris Johnson is keen to strike a deal by the end of the year which will draw a line under Brexit once and for all, as well as clearing the way to rubber-stamp other deals with third countries such as the United States.
Mr Johnson is vehemently opposed to extending the transition period because it would delay the UK’s ability to strike such deals.
However, problems remain, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian giving a clear indication of the brutal nature of negotiations with his suggestion that the two sides will “rip each other apart” – and the directive, published by the European Commission earlier this month, likewise underlines what is at stake.
On February 25, the European Council is scheduled to adopt the decision authorising the opening of talks.
Once this has happened, negotiations can get underway in earnest, with the first formal meeting likely to take place at the beginning of March.
The document explains: “The Commission intends to achieve as much as possible during the transition period.
“We are ready to work 24/7 to make the best out of the negotiations.”
“It is possible to extend the transition period by one to two years.”
Crucially, however, the Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, adds: “This decision must be taken jointly by the EU and the UK before July 1.
“If no decision has been taken by the Joint Committee before July 2020, there is no other legal basis for extending the transition beyond 2020.”
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And it stresses there remains the real risk of a no-deal outcome, explaining: “As in every negotiation, the risk of not reaching an agreement is there.
“Regardless of whether a future partnership will be in place, all businesses need to prepare now for the end of the transition period, as the UK will no longer be in the Single Market or the Customs Union.”
With such a possibility in mind, a crunch conference is scheduled for June prior to any final decision about extending the transition.
The Commission explains: “The High-Level Conference in June, as foreseen by the Withdrawal Agreement, aims to take stock of the progress in negotiations.
“The Commission will also use the Conference to take stock of the state of implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, in particular when it comes to citizens’ rights and the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference yesterday, Mr Le Drian said Brussels would be ruthless in talks with the UK.
He said: “I think that on trade issues and the mechanism for future relations, which we are going to start on, we are going to rip each other apart.
“But that is part of negotiations, everyone will defend their own interests.”
Ms von der Leyen and chief negotiator Michel Barnier have previously voiced their doubts about the feasibility of Mr Johnson’s plan to reach a comprehensive agreement by the end of the year.
Speaking at the LSE last month, Ms von der Leyen warned of “tense” negotiations, adding: “The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership has to be.
“And without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership. We will have to prioritise.”
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