A new EU-UK trade deal will not be concluded before the end of a post-Brexit transition period, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, told UK MPs on Wednesday (20 June).
Verfostadt, who leads the European Parliament’s Brexit steering committee and the Liberal ALDE group of MEPs, played down the suggestion that a deal on future trade relations could be part of the withdrawal pact, during a two hour hearing with MPs on the Exiting the EU committee on Wednesday.
“It’s impossible to have full detail on the future relationship by October or March,” he said, adding that “it will need the whole transition period to get this political agreement (trade)…we need more than three to four months”.
Prime Minister Theresa May is yet to publish a long-awaited White Paper on future trade relations, and the long-running impasse over how to avoid a hard border on customs between Northern Ireland and the Republic has prompted fears of missing the self-imposed autumn deadline on concluding the withdrawal deal.
Verhofstadt conceded that there was a bit of extra wiggle room in the timeline.
“Normally we need three months (to ratify), but if there is a delay of a few weeks we can manage,” the former Belgian PM added.
He then clarified that the end of 2018 was the ultimate deadline. Meanwhile, he told MPs that trade talks would not be delayed by the European Parliament elections and the process of electing the next European Commission.
The Parliament has no direct involvement in the Article 50 negotiations themselves but MEPs will be required to ratify any agreement that emerges from the talks between Michel Barnier’s Brexit taskforce and Theresa May’s team.
MEPs backed plans for a Ukraine-style association agreement between the EU and UK in March, a compromise covering trade, internal security, thematic cooperation, and external security and defence, which Verhofstadt offered to MPs as a way to break the deadlock in negotiations.
“The advantage is that once an Association Agreement is approved by both sides it is applicable. You don’t need to wait for ratification by the EU-27,” he said.
“We are trying to build a bridge between the red lines of the UK and the principles of the EU.”
In an often combative display, Verhofstadt admitted that he still viewed the 2016 referendum, where 52% voted to leave the bloc, as “a failure of the EU”.
He added that “it has opened our eyes and sped up the process of reform in the EU. After Brexit the European project regained popularity.”
“Fortunately we have not seen the domino effect (of other countries heading for the EU exit),” he added.
He also rejected claims by several Conservative deputies that the EU was guilty of showing a lack of pragmatism in the talks by insisting that the UK would not be able to remain in a pan-European satellite programme or the EU’s judicial and police co-operation accords.
“Maybe if you are a bit more flexible on your red lines,” he urged.