EU tensions build over when to present no-deal Brexit plans

Brussels is facing mounting frustration from EU member states over its reluctance to immediately present emergency measures that would mitigate chaos should Brexit trade talks fail.

The European Commission on Monday refused to be drawn on when it might present temporary contingency measures, such as short-term rights for EU-UK flights to continue and for hauliers to transport goods across the English Channel, despite increasing irritation in national capitals at Brussels’ unwillingness to provide more certainty.

In a sign of the conflicting views over how forthcoming the EU should be while negotiations drag on with only a month left of the Brexit transition period, one EU diplomat warned on Monday that national governments “will co-ordinate and come up with their own set of measures” if the commission continues to refuse to act in areas where member states can also take the initiative.

The diplomat said that commission chiefs could “continue to sit on their hands and antagonise member states or they can co-operate”.

The tensions are striking in the context of Brexit negotiations — which continued in London on Monday with no sign of a breakthrough — during which the EU has taken pride in its internal unity.

All EU ambassadors who spoke during a Brexit discussion on Friday urged the commission to promptly come forward with emergency measures, with some warning that its reluctance to act had left businesses and public authorities in the dark over how to prepare for a no-deal scenario. 

But EU officials said the commission was concerned about giving Britain the mistaken impression that contingency measures — which are unilateral and temporary — could somehow provide an alternative to a comprehensive deal.

Brussels also argues that the need for contingency measures is less than when Brussels and Britain were negotiating the country’s EU divorce treaty, as that deal is now in place and will mitigate some of the fallout of a failure of the trade talks — notably by safeguarding citizens rights and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

“We’re fully concentrated on the Brexit negotiations right now,” said a European Commission spokesperson on Monday. The spokesperson noted that changed trading conditions on January 1 were inevitable given the UK’s decision to leave the single market and customs union, and that businesses have had time to prepare.

“If contingency measures are needed, they would be limited and tailored to the existing very specific circumstances,” the spokesperson said. They “would be adopted in time to make sure that we are fully prepared for January 1.”

But diplomats said action was needed now given that in some cases national parliaments and other authorities would need to study the measures and that the European Parliament would most likely also play a role.

The issue has been raised repeatedly at ambassador level meetings, culminating in a strong push on Friday for the commission to put forward proposals.

“The 27 member states were very clear,” the diplomat said. “They expect the commission to come forward with contingency measures as soon as possible.”

EU officials acknowledge that some steps would be needed to prevent instability.

Brussels has already acted to mitigate the main threat posed to financial markets by the end of the transition period, taking legal measures to ensure that European banks can temporarily continue to access UK clearinghouses and central securities depositories — crucial parts of financial market infrastructure. 

Taking a contingency measure in the area of financial services is politically simplified by the fact that the sector has been left largely outside the scope of the trade talks.

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