EU sets out contingency planning for no-deal Brexit and warns ‘disruption will happen’

But row on the horizon as EU says fishing fleets should still have access after transition ends

Jon Stone
Thursday 10 December 2020 15:33 GMT
EU president says UK must agree to fair access to single market post-Brexit

The European Commission has brought forward new contingency plans for a Brexit no-deal,  warning that the risk of an agreement not being reached is now “significant”.

The move comes after talks between Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Boris Johnson in Brussels last night ended with little sign of a breakthrough.

The package contains regulations to ensure flights can continue between the UK and EU, as well as “basic road connectivity”, with an initial six month duration.

But it also includes a plan to allow continued “reciprocal access” for fishing fleet operate in British and European waters, that is likely to prove more controversial with Brexiteers.

The inclusion of the fishing clause, which calls for “continued reciprocal access by EU and UK vessels to each other’s waters after 31 December 2020” in the light of “the importance of fisheries for the economic livelihood of many communities”, raises the prospect that side-deals with the UK to mitigate the most damaging aspects of a no-deal could be dependent on continued access for fishing.

Some of the regulations would also be dependent on the UK maintaining a level playing field and not undercutting the EU in sectors like road haulage.

“Disruption will happen with or without an agreement between the EU and the UK on their future relationship,” the Commission said in a statement.

"This is the natural consequence of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the Union and to no longer participate in the EU single market and customs union."

Britain is leaving the single market and customs union at the end of the year and the disruption to trade this will cause is expected to be significantly more acute without a free trade agreement to replace it.

The UK has the option of extending the transition period until July, but Boris Johnson declined to do so, a decision also backed by Labour.

Ms von der Leyen said: "Negotiations are still ongoing. However, given that the end of the transition is very near, there is no guarantee that if and when an agreement is found, it can enter into force on time.

"Our responsibility is to be prepared for all eventualities, including not having a deal in place with the UK on 1 January 2021. That is why we are coming forward with these measures today."

Negotiators are reconvening in Brussels on Thursday for last-ditch talks, with both sides having agreed to decide on Sunday whether they are worth continuing further. 

Speaking in the Commons on Thursday morning, Cabinet Office minister Penny Mordaunt indicated that the end of the week was not however a hard deadline for a Brexit trade deal.

Asked by eurosceptic MP Peter Bone whether 13 December was the final deadline for talks, Ms Mordaunt told the House of Commons: “There is a very, very firm deadline which is the end of this year.

“We will carry on negotiating until there is no hope left. The statement made yesterday would indicate that Sunday, unless there is progress made, may well be that deadline.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said: “This kind of statement from the EU was expected. They set out a similar proposition in September 2019.

“We have obviously already set out our own plans in the event of an FTA not being reached and we have said we will discuss practical arrangements with the EU.

“The contingency plans were only set out this morning and we will obviously look very closely at the details.”

The PM’s official spokesman declined to discuss the EU’s proposed measures on fisheries, but said: “We would never accept arrangements and access to UK fishing waters which are incompatible with our status as an independent coastal state.”

The PM’s spokesman indicated that there has been no change in the UK’s negotiating positions as a result of Wednesday’s dinner.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics of the negotiations while they are ongoing,” he said. “I would point you back to what the PM said in the House on Wednesday, and specifically that we would never agree to anything that didn’t respect our sovereignty as an independent nation and we’ve been clear of our negotiating position throughout."

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