The Brexit negotiations are unlikely to reach any kind of conclusion until the end of the year because of continuing deadlock between the UK and EU over the Irish border and mounting political disarray at Westminster, said officials involved in the talks.
Until recently politicians on both sides of the channel had assumed that the Article 50 process would be concluded by early autumn, with the critical vote on whether to approve any deal taking place in the House of Commons in October.
But British and European officials are now revising their expectations, with some in the UK suggesting that the pact may not be agreed until November or until the December 13-14 meeting of the European Council, just three months before the UK leaves the EU.
Concern over the slipping timetable is one of the reasons why David Davis, the Brexit secretary, was last week determined to revise a rebel amendment to the EU withdrawal bill, which set a deadline of November 30 for the government to present a Brexit deal to MPs.
The government’s revised amendment — which is still contested by pro-European Conservatives — said that MPs must be given a chance to approve a pact by January 21, 2019, more than a month after the December EU council takes place.
Officials in London and Brussels believe the next two European Councils are unlikely to see any kind of breakthrough in the talks.
There’s a lot of scepticism among EU negotiators about whether a deal can come together by October.
The council meeting on June 28 and 29 is expected to see little progress over the need to maintain an invisible border in Ireland and the framework for future UK-EU trade.
The next opportunity for an agreement will be at the October 18-19 council meeting. But this will come just two weeks after the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, making it difficult for Mrs May to offer compromises without antagonising Tory Brexit hardliners.
Some UK officials are even suggesting that a special EU heads of government summit on Brexit may need to be convened in November to hammer out a deal.
“I don’t think the crunch will come much before the end of the year. It will probably be at some special council they will have to convene because I don’t think this will happen in October,” Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU, told an FT-KPMG conference on Brexit last week.
Mujtaba Rahman, a former European Commission official now at the Eurasia Group, said there are similar perceptions in Brussels.
“There’s a lot of scepticism among EU negotiators about whether a deal can come together by October, he said. “Most involved in the process see November or December as a more realistic timeframe.”
Mr Rahman said expectations of a slipping timetable have intensified in recent days because EU officials are taking an even more negative view of the UK’s various customs proposals.
“While it wouldn’t resolve all Irish border issues, a permanent UK-wide customs union is still viewed by EU negotiators as the cleanest way to unlock negotiations. But they see how politically difficult this will be for May to deliver and that’s what’s contributing to their pessimism and revised expectations on timing.”
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