In Depth

Brexit: the state of affairs as negotiations restart

Virtual negotiations will begin next week, but time is running out to agree a deal

The UK government and the EU have agreed to resume Brexit negotiations next week, following a “constructive” video conference on Wednesday between the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost.

Since the UK officially left the union on 31 January its trade relationship with the EU has remained largely unchanged, but this transition period - in place to provide time to negotiate the terms of the future relationship - is due to expire at the end of this year.

Such was the disruptive power of the coronavirus pandemic that it shifted focus from and halted the progress of the most dominant issue of recent years - even Barnier and Frost themselves had symptoms of the virus.

The timeframe to negotiate the hugley complex trade deal was already unprecedentedly small - most negotiations of this scale take years, and the two sides have made a commitment to be finished by July. But after the second and third rounds of talks were cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, the window is even narrower.

“Because of the global pandemic, a negotiating timeframe that was already deemed improbable has turned nearly impossible,” says Politico.

What needs to be agreed?

Following Wednesday’s e-meeting, a timetable for further virtual negotiations has been revealed.

On the table are the crucial issues of the future trade relationship, including security policy, trade rules and the contentious issue of fishing rights. Westminster has yet to produce any proposals on the politically charged issue of access for EU boats to UK waters - and it could yet prove an intractable issue.

“If there is no progress on this, then there will be no progress in other areas,” an unnamed EU official told the Financial Times.

The newspaper reports: “While the commission has published a comprehensive legal text setting out its vision of the future EU-UK relationship, the UK has taken a more piecemeal approach. It has submitted a total of six separate texts covering energy policy, criminal justice, trade, air transport, air safety and civil nuclear safety.”

As the pandemic has reduced time available to resolve these crucial points, the question is whether it will force negotiators to pause the process altogether.

Might there be an extension?

Because of the enormous economic toll taken by the coronavirus pandemic, calls have been growing for the two sides to extend the current transition period.

Yesterday, the IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva told the BBC that the “unprecedented uncertainty” caused by Covid-19 meant it would be “wise not to add more on top of it”.

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“I really hope that all policymakers everywhere would be thinking about [reducing uncertainty]. It is tough as it is,” she said - “let’s not make it any tougher.”

Robert Keen, head of the British International Freight Association, also said recently: “This is not an argument about leaving the EU. That is done and dusted. This is an argument about managing the transition process when not just the goalposts but the entire playing field has moved.”

The deadline to request an extension to the transition period is 1 July, but as things stand it seems the Conservative government remains unbending in its determination to complete the Brexit process once and for all.

The Guardian claims that “EU diplomats are increasingly convinced that London will ask for an extension”.

However, writing in The Spectator, James Forsyth maintains the government is unwilling to countenance such a move: “The thinking is that a delay would not solve the fundamental policy problems and that a deal is either possible or not. Another factor… is concern that extending could drag the UK into the arguments about who pays for the various EU schemes designed to protect the European economy and preserve the Eurozone.”

If, indeed, Downing Street refuses to request an extension, it is also possible the EU could make the request itself.

Such a move “would put the government in a difficult position”, continues Forsyth. “Rejecting the request would sit ill with the idea that the UK wants to be a good neighbour to the EU.”

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