EU Waits for May’s Signal to Spark Brexit Deal Endgame

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May could visit Brussels within days to trigger the final phase of negotiations over the country’s divorce from the European Union, according to EU officials.

The EU is waiting for an indication from May that her Cabinet has approved the draft Brexit treaty which, barring a few alterations in language, is now complete. This would spark an elaborate choreography to enable the U.K. Parliament to start its ratification process and allow Britain to leave the bloc on March 29, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

  • Cabinet approval would be followed by either May or her Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, sealing the agreement with a handshake at the European Commission in Brussels.
  • That would be the signal for the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to claim that “decisive progress” has been made in the negotiations -- EU shorthand for a deal lacking only sign-off by EU leaders.
  • EU President Donald Tusk would then call an EU summit to get May and the 27 other leaders together. The EU is anxious not to allow too much time to elapse before this meeting. Although a date has not yet been fixed, it could be Nov. 18 or the middle of the following week.
  • Approval by EU leaders before the end of November should allow enough time to get the divorce treaty ratified in the U.K. Parliament and to pass the other legislation needed to prepare the country for life outside the union.

However, there are already signs that timetable is slipping. EU officials said they were expecting more from Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting in London, which broke up without agreement. That prompted the EU to postpone a meeting between the Commission and EU ambassadors from Wednesday to Friday.

May’s officials are considering calling a second Cabinet meeting later this week, people familiar with the matter said, potentially to sign off the deal and allow for May’s or Raab’s trip to Brussels.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters in Helsinki on Wednesday that a deal this month is possible, and that he hopes talks on the divorce agreement were entering their final weeks.

If no deal is finalized in November then an accord in the first two weeks of December is possible, he indicated. “Beyond that, you’re into the New Year, which wouldn’t be a good thing,” he said.

The deal isn’t there yet: U.K. ministers are still quarreling over how to break the deadlock over the Irish border and make sure the guarantees Britain offers the bloc don’t end up binding the U.K. to EU trade rules forever.

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