The European Commission has continued efforts to prepare for a disorderly divorce between the EU and the UK, as the risk of a no-deal departure is becoming “increasingly likely”, EU officials said on Monday (25 March).
With no clarity on when UK lawmakers will vote again on the EU-UK divorce deal, the Commission stepped up its communication campaign to prepare citizens and companies for the UK’s chaotic departure.
If the Withdrawal Agreement fails to pass, the UK will leave the EU on 12 April, unless London decides to participate in the EU elections.
In that scenario, the UK will be allowed to ask for a longer extension, EU leaders agreed with UK prime minister Theresa May last Thursday.
Amid the uncertainty, “the risk of a no deal scenario is becoming increasingly likely,” an EU official said. “We are prepared for this scenario,” the source added. EU member states are also prepared, the official added, saying they and have been “for quite some time”.
Outstanding issues: Irish border and Brexit bill
The EU and UK sides are yet to solve the issue of avoiding a hard border in Ireland that could affect peace between the Northern and Southern parts of the island.
This issue has been a bone of contention throughout the Brexit talks and the ‘backstop’ solution to address it triggered the UK Parliament’s rejection of the withdrawal agreement.
EU officials said “intense discussions” are ongoing and they expect the UK to deliver on its commitment of avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
However, it remains unclear how EU authorities would check that goods crossing from Northern Ireland comply with the EU’s phytosanitary requirements and customs obligations.
The UK government must also signal by 18 April whether it would contribute to the EU budget for this year with around €7 billion. This money will cover EU programmes also benefiting UK researchers and farmers.
EU officials warned that it would be important for future trade talks between the two sides, saying it would affect the credibility of the UK as a partner. UK officials have signalled they would be unwilling to pay up in the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario.
But even if London declines to pay, Brussels warned there will still be a financial settlement to address because there are commitments that were taken when the UK was still an EU member.
EU Brexit preparedness plans almost finished
The EU started preparing for a no-deal Brexit in December 2017. Following a complete assessment of legislation, the EU executive put forward 19 legislative proposals.
A total of 17 initiatives have been already adopted by co-legislators to mitigate the most disruptive and costly effects of a no deal scenario.
The Commission also issued 90 notices to national governments, companies and citizens with information to deal with the consequences of the UK’s departure.
On top of the measures already announced, the Commission will set up a call centre to respond to citizens’ queries and is in the process of training officials in all policy areas to interact with stakeholders affected by the UK’s departure without an agreement.
20 new border checkpoints
Countries including France, Belgium and the Netherlands have increased their readiness by hiring custom officials to deal with goods coming from Britain.
Paris has hired 700 customs agents, while up to 400 new personnel will strengthen the Belgian contingency, and around 900 officials will join in The Netherlands.
In total, more than 20 new border checkpoints will be set up in half a dozen countries.
Although there will be some “friction”, the Commission believes that it would be manageable.
EU officials warned that there are “weak spots” in the contingency plans and the flow of goods and people may not be “smooth” or easy following a disorderly Brexit.
“What we expect to see is more waiting time” at the border, an EU source said.
The consequences will be clearly visible for UK citizens entering the EU from day one. They will be subject to additional checks at the border, and the authorities could ask them to provide more specific information on the purpose of their trip and their means of subsistence.
The EU has offered a visa-free stay for up to 90 days, as long as the UK government replicates with a similar proposal.
UK citizens could also see their phone bills increase as telecom operators would no longer be obliged to comply with EU roaming rules.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox and Frédéric Simon]