The EU is going to contact its partners around the world this week with an unusual request: could you temporarily pretend that Britain is still in the bloc, even though it will have left?
EU officials told the Financial Times that the European Commission would send out the diplomatic note to the more than 160 countries with which it has international agreements, as it seeks to help the UK navigate the unique circumstances of its post-Brexit transition period.
A draft of the note verbale, published on the EU’s website, notifies governments around the world that Brussels’ intention is that “the United Kingdom is treated as a Member State of the Union and of Euratom for the purposes of these international agreements” during the transition. It says the standstill period is needed to address “the specific situation” arising from Brexit.
The move by Brussels underlines how Britain and the EU will be in uncharted territory after Brexit day, navigating an 11-month period in which the UK will still be covered by EU law, inside the bloc’s single market and customs union, but outside the EU.
It is an arrangement that means little will change for British and EU travellers, expats or businesses between Brexit day and the end of 2020. The main difference in Brussels will be the departure of British members of the European Parliament and the end of any UK representation in the bloc’s other institutions and agencies.
But the situation regarding the hundreds of international agreements struck by the EU with countries around the world is more ambiguous — deals covering everything from trade to civil aviation and fish.
Under the terms of its Brexit deal, the UK will still need to comply with all the obligations placed on the EU by such agreements until the transition period ends. But whether it continues to get the benefits of the agreements is ultimately up to the partner countries.
EU and UK officials say they are not expecting problems, although there is always the possibility that the situation is tested in court. One EU official said the 11-month window was short enough that there was little incentive for other countries to make difficulties.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has warned that the bigger challenge for the UK will be to use the transition to negotiate its own deals with countries around the world — Brussels estimates that there are about 600 agreements that Britain will want to replace.
Brussels has 49 accords with Switzerland alone, while there are 44 with the US and 38 with Norway, according to an FT analysis of the EU treaty database in 2017.
“Mechanically, legally speaking, they leave all these,” Mr Barnier said earlier this month. “They will have to rebuild everything.”
The UK has already signed 20 trade agreements, including with South Korea and Switzerland, but many other replacement deals are still under negotiation, including with big partners such as Canada and Japan.