EU to seek more time to ratify trade deal with UK

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The EU is set to ask Britain for more time to ratify their new trade deal despite the UK urging Brussels to press ahead quickly, with the issue becoming a fresh point of tension between the two sides. 

Diplomats said national ambassadors from EU countries at a meeting on Friday backed an extension to the current end of February ratification deadline, amid concerns that legally approved versions of the trade treaty in all of the bloc’s 24 official languages will not be ready by then.

Ambassadors in Brussels were briefed at their meeting by the EU’s in-house lawyers that an end of April deadline would be more realistic to have “authentic” versions ready of the 1,246-page agreement in all 24 of the bloc’s languages.

Both the European Parliament and the EU Council that represents member states need to ratify the agreement.

The concern on the EU side is that it would be difficult in practice for EU institutions, including the European Parliament, to prepare ratification documents while relying on provisional translations of the deal that may not perfectly match.

Provisional translations were “done with great haste in the run-up to 31 December” and “need careful checking”, said one EU official. Trade experts have started to discover errors. 

While the text of the trade deal foresees that the treaty could be ratified based simply on the document produced in English, there are also political sensitivities on the EU side — not least for France — that all versions in the bloc’s 24 languages should have the same status when the agreement is signed off.

The EU resorted to so-called provisional application of the trade deal after negotiations continued into the final days of 2020 and the European Parliament ruled out a rushed ratification.

This arrangement allows the agreement to apply in practice even though the parliament and the EU council have not yet signed it off.

The parliament has backed the idea of an extension to the ratification process to allow more time for scrutiny of the trade deal. 

But Britain has urged the EU to stick to the original timetable of ratifying by the end of February, given that the deal was rapidly approved by the British parliament on December 30 with just one day of debate. 

The end of February deadline for ratification is written into the deal, and both sides would need to agree for it to be changed.

“We and the EU agreed only last month to provisionally apply the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement until 28 February,” said a UK government spokesperson. “The aim was to allow the EU a reasonable and proportionate length of time to ratify the agreement.”

The UK government spokesperson said the end of February deadline still seemed the right one, and Britain looked to the EU to complete its process within the timeframe. “We will consider any request for extension if and when we receive one.”

EU officials said there was no danger of the trade deal lapsing because of the issues around the ratification timetable, and that the bloc’s hope is that Britain will grant more time.

The matter is likely to be one of the first issues addressed by the new EU-UK partnership council that will be set up to oversee the deal. EU officials said that no date had yet been set for the first meeting of the body. 

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