Brussels has published emergency plans to keep planes flying, trucks moving and prevent other chaos in the event that trade talks with Britain fail, as it warned of “significant uncertainty” around the fate of the Brexit negotiations.
The European Commission adopted the proposals on Thursday, temporarily ensuring that airlines could continue to fly their normal routes between the EU and UK and that hauliers could continue to cross the English Channel after Britain leaves the single market on January 1.
Brussels is also proposing that the EU and UK could ensure fishermen have a grace period to continue being able to access each other’s waters.
“While the commission will continue to do its utmost to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the UK, there is now significant uncertainty whether a deal will be in place on 1 January 2021,” the institution said in a statement.
Brussels had spent weeks resisting intense pressure from member states to publish the plans, arguing that they could disrupt the trade talks with Britain by giving the impression that the EU would create a safety net for when the country’s post-Brexit transition period ends.
But EU officials said the commission had been forced to act because little time remained until the end of the year. The precariousness of the trade negotiations was underlined by a dinner on Wednesday evening between UK prime minister Boris Johnson and commission president Ursula von der Leyen that laid bare the gulf separating the two sides.
Ms von der Leyen said on Thursday that the bloc had a responsibility “to be prepared for all eventualities”.
Brussels insisted that it was doing the bare minimum necessary to prevent significant economic disruption for European citizens and businesses. The aim, it said, was to “provide a transitory solution, while negotiations on a future partnership continue, and not look to mitigate the negative impacts of Brexit in a sustained manner”.
The contingency measures deal with areas where there is no “international fallback solution” that would kick in to prevent chaos should a trade deal not be ready for the end of the year. This explains why there is no measure on shipping.
Brussels noted, for example, that failure to put in place a stopgap system for road hauliers would “would create unmanageable disruptions and pose a serious threat to EU interests”.
Some of the proposals, which require approval from national governments and the European Parliament, would need to be reciprocated by the UK to be effective. This is the case for the air transport proposal, which would allow UK carriers to continue existing passenger and cargo services between the UK and EU for six months.
Brussels also proposed to ensure the continued validity of air safety certificates.
On fishing, the legal proposal would make it possible for the EU to grant authorisations to UK vessels to enter EU waters, should Britain reciprocate. The temporary arrangement would last until the end of 2021.
The road transport proposal would ensure that cross-Channel trade is not choked by a shortage of haulage permits, and would last six months.
The commission’s announcements did not cover financial services, on the grounds that further market access in this area does not hinge on the trade talks but on separate work on regulatory permissions. Brussels has yet to clarify what market rights the City of London can expect.
The commission warned national governments not to undermine the EU position that only the bare minimum of contingency measures should be put in place. It also appealed to capitals to use their collective leverage to fight for the EU’s interests in a no-deal scenario.
“At any rate, the EU collectively has a stronger bargaining power than each member state acting alone,” the commission said. “This bargaining power benefits all member states. It must be used to ensure a level playing field between the EU and the United Kingdom.”