A no-deal finale to Britain’s five-year Brexit drama would disrupt the operations of manufacturers, retailers, farmers and nearly every other sector - just as the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic worsens.
“We stand ready to negotiate 24/7, on all subjects, on legal texts. The UK has a bit of a decision to make and it’s their free and sovereign choice,” Michel said.
He said Britain’s answer would determine its level of access to the EU’s internal market of 450 million consumers. The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the parliament an agreement was still “within reach”.
“Time is of the essence...along with our British counterparts, we must find solutions to the most difficult areas,” Barnier said in comments that pushed sterling higher.
London has this week refused to continue full negotiations, saying the EU must “fundamentally change” its stance.
The EU sees this as bluff by Prime Minister Boris Johnson but has also extended an olive branch by talking up UK sovereignty, as well as the EU’s readiness to discuss intensively, across the board and on specific legal texts.
Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost had been due to speak on the phone at 14h GMT on Wednesday (21 October).
Michel stressed the 27 EU members were ready for an abrupt split without a new agreement to avoid tariffs or quotas with three main sticking points in the negotiations: fishing rights, economic fair play and settling disputes.
“We don’t need words, we need guarantees,” he said of fair competition safeguards.
Michel called for a “binding, independent arbitration” to redress market distortions swiftly, adding that London’s draft Internal Market Bill - which would undermine Britain’s earlier divorce deal with the EU - only strengthened the bloc’s resolve to ensure tight policing of any new deal.
The EU’s executive Commission said London must respect its Brexit settlement regardless of the trade talks.
Michel said losing access to British waters would damage the EU’s fishing industry, and the EU therefore wanted to prolong the status-quo just as London sought to keep the EU market open for UK companies.
“But the UK wants access to the single market while at the same time being able to diverge from our standards and regulations when it suits them,” Michel said.
Following Brexit last January, Britain’s current EU trading terms expire in 10 weeks and unfettered commerce will end without a new treaty.
Keen to avoid any blame, the bloc is ready to negotiate until mid-November but must then ratify any deal in the European Parliament before time is up.