The UK and EU need to agree and ratify a ‘new partnership’ agreement by the end of the year, if it’s to be in place for the end of the transition period.

This Insight outlines the timeline and state of play in the UK-EU negotiations.

What is the timeline for negotiations?

The deadline in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) for extending the transition period passed on 1 July. This means the transition period will end on 31 December.

At this point the UK will leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. With no new partnership in place, UK-EU trade arrangements will revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and co-operation arrangements in other sectors will end.

The timeline below shows how negotiations between the UK and the EU have taken place and what is expected by the end of the year.

A timeline of the Brexit transition period

October deadline

The EU has said an agreement needs to be reached by the end of October to allow time for ratification by the end of the year. A draft EU ratification timeline indicates the EU would like an agreed legal text ready by the beginning of October, to make time for legal and linguistic revisions.

The next European Council meeting is on 15-16 October. The EU envisages this is when political approval for an agreement could be given by EU heads of state and government. However, as has happened previously in the Brexit process, an additional EU leaders’ summit could be called to approve a deal.

Time needed for ratification

The EU’s formal ratification procedures require an EU Commission proposal for a Council decision on the deal by early November. The agreement would be sent to the European Parliament in mid-November. The EU Parliament would need to give consent to the agreement, with a vote expected in December.

This timetable is based on the assumption that the agreement will not be “mixed” (covering both EU and Member State competences). A mixed agreement would also require ratification within each Member State, although aspects could be applied provisionally ahead of full ratification.

Sticking points

There have been four principal sticking points since negotiations began in March. These relate to:

  1. Governance of the future relationship. The EU proposes a single agreement covering all issues with a unified governance structure. The UK has proposed a set of separate agreements, each with distinct governance arrangements.
  2. The ‘level playing field’. The EU has said it will not agree a deal unless the UK agrees to enforceable common standards on state aid, workers’ rights and environmental protection to ensure “open and fair” competition.
  3. Fisheries. The EU is also making a deal dependent on an agreement on fisheries which provides continuity in EU access to UK waters.
  4. Police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters.

The UK Government has ruled out regulatory alignment with the EU, jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) and any supranational control over the UK, in all areas.

The Government says any agreement with the EU needs to respect the UK’s sovereign control of its laws. It also says that its proposals are based on the precedents of the EU’s agreements with other countries.

The EU says that some of the UK’s proposals go beyond existing precedents and that in some areas the UK is seeking to maintain the status of a Member State. It says its proposals are based on the joint commitments set out in the Political Declaration (PD) on the framework for the future relationship. The PD was agreed by the UK Government and EU in October 2019.

Latest negotiation rounds

In late July there were indications of movement from both sides. On governance, the lead UK negotiator David Frost said the EU had listened to UK concerns over the role of the CJEU and the UK was ready to consider simpler structures, given EU concerns over having multiple agreements.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, also spoke of some progress on police and judicial cooperation. On this issue, the Financial Times reported that the EU was willing to explore options for keeping the CJEU out of arrangements, but this meant the depth of future co-operation would be restricted. The UK would lose access to EU databases, for example. Mr Barnier nevertheless said that a lack of UK engagement on fisheries and the level playing field meant an agreement was unlikely.

Following the August negotiating round, Mr Barnier said that talks “were going backwards,” and were “wasting valuable time.”

Lord Frost complained the EU was still insisting the UK accepted continuity with EU state aid and fisheries policy, and that this should be agreed before any further substantive work in other areas, including legal texts. He said this made it “unnecessarily difficult to make progress.”

Following this round, the UK tabled a draft legal text for an agreement. This was reportedly rejected by the EU as it did not include its core demands.

State aid and fisheries

State aid and fisheries appear to be the most intractable areas. But some reports suggest there could be scope for compromise.

On state aid, the EU could accept some form of agreement to have equivalent standards as the UK, policed by an independent UK regulator. However, the EU first wants to know what the UK’s future state aid/subsidies scheme will look like.

On fisheries, Michel Barnier has said a compromise between the two sides’ “maximalist” positions will be needed. This could involve the EU ceding quotas to the UK in a phased manner, while providing safeguards to EU fishing communities that will lose access.

Breaking the deadlock might require intervention from political leaders on both sides.

Further reading

About the author: Stefano Fella is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

PhotoDave Kellam / CC BY-SA

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