Brexit: EU lawyers look into plans to rush through a trade deal – but pessimism is growing

The European Union is looking into plans to rush through a Brexit deal before the end of the year, even if talks drag on into December.

But senior figures have told Sky News they are “increasingly pessimistic” that a deal can be done.

In one scenario, which has been discussed at the highest levels, a deal would be given a new “classification” that, crucially, would remove the need to have it ratified by every European parliament.

Instead, it would only require the approval of EU leaders and the European Parliament.

Unlike the UK, the European bloc has never set a deadline for talks to end and a senior Brussels source told me that “we will never be the first ones to walk away from the table”.

EU lawyers have been asked to look into laws around just how quickly a deal could be ratified in order to meet the 31 December deadline before the UK leaves.

The bloc had originally said that it would take around two months for a trade agreement to be signed off, but is now investigating ways of curtailing that period hugely.

At the heart of that is a plan to recategorise the trade agreement as an “EU-only” deal rather than a “mixed agreement”.

This would mean that it would no longer have to pass through parliaments and assemblies across Europe but would instead require just the assent of the European Council and the European Parliament.

The process would need the support of member states and may also require a so-called “protocol declaration” that states this is a one-off decision, rather than a precedent for future talks.

“There is simply no way that this will work as a mixed agreement any more – there is no longer enough time,” one senior source told me.

“We spent years signing off deals with Canada and Japan and, here we are, faced with a much bigger deal and we have six weeks left. We are, in diplomatic terms, in completely uncharted waters.”

However, even if a timescale can be created that would suit both sides, there is growing pessimism within EU circles that an agreement can be reached.

Familiar stumbling blocks remain, with particular emphasis being placed upon the disagreements over “level playing field” requirements on regulating standards and competitive advantages, such as state aid.

These are seen as fundamental to both the UK and the European Union’s demands, with little indication that an agreement is within sight.

In fact, despite some warm words from both sides about progress, one well-placed source told me that “the comments being made now are the same as the ones that were made in August”.

The European Council, which includes the leaders of all 27 member states, will meet by video conference on Thursday.

In the absence of a deal, the provisional agenda does not include any mention of Brexit, but I understand that leaders are likely to take stock of negotiations and may release a statement about them.

One plan, presently being discussed by EU diplomats, would see the Council state that its working assumption is now that an agreement would not be signed by the end of the year, and that European businesses should assume a no-deal Brexit.

“It would be an effort to focus attention onto one final push,” said one source.

However, other voices within the Council think leaders should remain distant from the talks at this crucial phase, and follow the guide of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

One other challenge that would stand in the way of a future Brexit deal is the growing irritation of the European Parliament.

Members feel that they were marginalised during negotiations around the Withdrawal Agreement and insist they will not pass a Brexit trade deal without proper scrutiny.

In particular, members are adamant they will not approve any deal if the UK government’s Internal Market Bill remains in place.

Today, one senior figure from the parliament confirmed to me that promise “has not changed one iota”.

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