France Floats Veto Threat on Brexit Deal as EU Feels Strain

France warned it could veto a trade deal between the U.K. and the European Union if it doesn’t like the terms, piling pressure on the EU negotiating team not to make further concessions as talks build to a climax.

At a meeting of the bloc’s 27 ambassadors on Wednesday, the French envoy warned chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier of how bad it would look if he brokered a deal only to see it vetoed by EU leaders, according to a diplomatic note of the meeting seen by Bloomberg.

Barnier, in turn, swerved a request from ambassadors to see key parts of the text before it’s finished, with some of those present voicing concerns he might be giving too much away and leaving them with too little time to scrutinize any agreement. Once any deal is done, EU leaders must approve it unanimously if it is to take effect, so Barnier has to keep all member states on board.

After nine months of work, the negotiations have reached a delicate point, with officials on both sides saying that a deal could be done in the next few days. To get there, uncomfortable compromises still have to be made.

“It is a good sign because it shows our negotiating team under David Frost are sticking to their guns,” Richard Drax, a lawmaker from Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, said in an interview. “All of this work has been done and now the French are stamping their feet; we must not relinquish our sovereignty at this late stage.”

France is leading a group of countries worried that Barnier will surrender too much access to British fishing waters and back down on conditions designed to prevent U.K. businesses getting an unfair competitive advantage.

On Thursday, a senior EU diplomat close to the talks said while a veto was possible, it was very unlikely because Barnier wouldn’t sign a deal in the first place if he thought it wouldn’t be supported by leaders. The EU’s negotiating team are right up against the bloc’s red lines but Barnier knows he can’t cross them, the diplomat said.

At Wednesday’s meeting in Brussels, at which Barnier spoke by video link from the talks in London, the French ambassador cautioned him against making too many concessions simply because time was running out. The French position was backed by Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, and several ambassadors pressed to see draft text so that they could have enough time to scrutinize it properly.

The Steps to Ratification

Even if U.K. and EU negotiators reach a deal, it isn’t the end of the story:

  • Any agreement will need still to be approved unanimously by the EU’s 27 leaders, most likely at their summit on Dec. 10-11, after being scrutinized by their ambassadors and Europe ministers in the days before.
  • EU lawyers will have to decide if any parts of the accord must be approved by national and regional parliaments across the bloc, something that would be the case if elements of it touch on member states’ national sovereignty. Officials stress, however, that they don’t expect this to delay the implementation of any accord.
  • The European Parliament has a veto. Its committees will scrutinize the text before all 705 lawmakers vote on it. Depending when the deal is struck, that could happen at an extraordinary session on Dec. 23 or Dec. 28.
  • Once parliament has given its consent, the EU Council, which represents member states, gives its final approval. By this stage, it should be a formality and would simply be signed off without discussion.
  • The agreement would then come into effect at 11 p.m. U.K. time on Dec. 31.

Barnier’s Last Lap

An EU diplomat briefed on the meeting said some countries were of the view that no deal wouldn’t be the end of the world because they could resume negotiations in 2021. This would mean, however, that trade with the U.K. would become subject to tariffs and quotas after the end of the post-Brexit transition period on Dec. 31.

Barnier pointed out that his role in the process is set to end this year. If talks were shelved until 2021, a new team would have to take up the baton and the EU would have to give it a new negotiating framework while at the same time grappling with the disruption of a no-deal outcome, according to the note.

France Floats Veto Threat on Brexit Deal as EU Feels Strain

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya played down the fight in an interview on Bloomberg TV.

“There are specific interests like, for example, fishing interests or achieving a good deal where we will not see unfair competition on the U.K. side,” she said. “What we did in the last few hours with the EU negotiator is examine the state of affairs like is normal in any negotiation in which the European Union is involved.”

A second diplomat said France’s view wasn’t the opinion of most EU countries and that Barnier’s briefing was intended to calm nerves in Paris.

In response to the ambassadors’ concerns, Barnier said he understood their worries but was sticking within the negotiating mandate he’d been given, according to the note. Still, he was non-committal on whether he would allow an examination of the draft texts. Barnier is reluctant to give member states access to the document to avoid getting drawn into negotiations with EU governments while he is still dealing with the U.K., officials said.

There’s a “good chance” of a deal in the next few days if “we hold our nerve” and trust Barnier, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Newstalk Radio. He said he hoped talks are “now, finally, drawing to a close.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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