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As Brexit pressure builds, EU red lines shine bright

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The EU might yet split over Brexit — but it wouldn’t be in London’s favor.

Senior EU officials and diplomats say that several countries — including France, the Netherlands and Spain — are worried that the EU’s mission-focused chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, may be too eager to conclude a deal with the U.K. side, and that EU heads of state and government will have to step in to stop an agreement that is worse for the bloc than a no-deal scenario.

Overall, EU27 officials, and officials in the EU institutions in Brussels, would much prefer to reach an agreement.

But the rising anxiety, particularly in three countries with such close ties to Britain, and their emphasis that the EU27 should not accept a deal at any price, highlights how badly the atmosphere was poisoned by the U.K.’s Internal Market Bill, and the willingness of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to unpick unilaterally some of the key provisions of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

“We prefer an agreement but not a bad deal,” said a senior EU diplomat who is following the talks closely. “But the difficulties remain and the U.K. has not moved enough on fundamental questions that would allow us to have an economically balanced deal, including fisheries, governance and level-playing field.”

With national EU27 leaders largely preoccupied by the coronavirus emergency, there is relatively little attention being paid in Continental capitals to Brexit and the late-stage negotiations with the U.K. As a result, several officials and diplomats said there was greater pressure on Barnier than at any other point in the four-year process, along with higher risks than ever of a disconnect even as Barnier and his team provide constant updates and briefings.

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