BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will wait until November before kicking off full-blown preparations for a possible collapse of Brexit talks, diplomats said, reluctantly accepting that such a scenario would still require some managing.
EU envoys of the 27 countries remaining in the bloc after Brexit discussed on Wednesday stepping up contingency planning should no agreement with Britain emerge on how to run the unprecedented process.
“We will wait for if and when the negotiations with Britain officially fail to kickstart more open work among the 27 on preparing for a no-deal,” a senior EU diplomat said. “We’ve given ourselves until November.”
The 27 EU leaders have agreed to meet on the weekend of Nov. 17-18 to sign off on any agreement with Britain, which on March 29, 2019, will become the first country ever to leave the bloc.
“There are areas where we need to act to have something in place on March 30th no matter what,” the diplomat said.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, confirmed on Thursday it was preparing for the possibility of Britain leaving the bloc without a divorce deal or an outline of their future relations, but reiterated it was working to conclude a treaty.
“The EU continues to work for an orderly Brexit and an ambitious future partnership with the UK that should include a close economic relationship,” the Commission’s Michel Barnier said.
Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, was due to meet the head of Britan’s main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, on Thursday. Corbyn has said Labour would vote against a Brexit deal based on Prime Minister Theresa May’s current proposals.
That has added to EU worries that, even if they secure a deal with May, it could be rejected in the British parliament, where both Labour and some in May’s deeply divided Conservative Party could vote against it.
Some EU diplomats and officials have reacted with irony to dozens of no-deal guidance papers issued recently by London, saying they envisage a lot of cooperation - and trust - between the sides even in the case of negotiations breaking down.
“That’s a lot of deals assumed on the British side for a no-deal scenario,” said a second diplomat dealing with Brexit in Brussels. “But it’s probably true that for some areas like air traffic we will have to make sure we go on.”
While a temporary extension of existing rules could work for air traffic or mutual assurances of citizens’ rights, they would be more problematic in areas such as customs.
Germany’s Brexit pointman Alex Dittman said the EU-27 still believed “a deal is much better than a no-deal for all parties involved”.
“But of course we need preparedness for all outcomes on national level as well as EU level,” he said.
The future customs border is the key point of contention in the negotiations as the sides differ deeply over how to avoid installing border checks between EU state Ireland and Britain’s province of Northern Ireland after Brexit, something they fear could upset the island’s Good Friday peace agreement.
Both sides appear to have dug in their heels since a meeting in Salzburg last week between May and the other 27 leaders turned sour, with the EU rejecting her plan that would see continued free trade in goods after Brexit.
But every negotiation also has its share of political theatre - something a third senior EU diplomat called “the ritual dance” - and each side hopes the other will blink first.
The EU and Britain are now negotiating a divorce deal. Should they agree on that and the agreement is ratified by both the British and the EU parliaments, Britain would get a status-quo adaptation period until the end of 2020.
That would delay most of the real effects of Brexit. Most EU diplomats expect that transition period to be extended as two years is unlikely to be enough to negotiate future cooperation accords on issues ranging from trade to food safety.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones