In Brief

Coronavirus: will the pandemic delay Brexit?

Government could be forced into climbdown after negotiations are delayed

Talks about the UK’s future relationship with the EU have been shelved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Guardian reports that during a European Commission briefing on Thursday, “envoys for the EU capitals were told that holding negotiations via video-conferencing had so far proved impossible”. 

The delay comes as personnel and resources in the UK and Brussels are redirected to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak.

The paper adds that the UK was also “still to table a legal text” that could ensure smoother negotiations, adding “an extra layer of difficulty” to proceedings. 

So will Brexit end-up being delayed?

What has the government said?

Earlier in March, negotiators were forced to cancel face-to-face talks due to take place alternately between Brussels and London before a crucial summit in June.

Hopes of conducting a full negotiation round via videolink have also been crushed by the Covid-19 outbreak, which has put large swathes of Europe into lockdown and limited the ability of EU diplomats and officials to prepare.

And with the UK government expecting the crisis to peak in Britain in late spring and early summer, The Guardian reports that “there are concerns [the peak] could coincide with critical negotiation deadlines”.

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UK director of the European Centre For International Political Economy, David Henig, told the paper: “I don’t see how you can realistically, by the end of June, make a decision on how trade talks are going.”

The upshot of all this is that, with civil servants who had been working on Brexit being rapidly redeployed to deal with the coronavirus, The Daily Telegraph says the government is beginning to accept that it will need to seek an extension before the June deadline expires.

What happens next?

While the coronavirus could give Johnson political cover to ask for an extension, “such a move poses a dilemma” notes The New York Times

Under the terms of its agreement, Britain would be required to pay billions of pounds to the EU if it continued to have access to the single market and customs union beyond the transition period. 

The NYT reports that a climbdown would be an “acute embarrassment for Johnson”, damaging his credibility with the “hard-line Brexit wing of his Conservative Party”.

Pro-Brexit forces have already begun campaigning against a delay, the paper adds, reporting that these calls are “part of an effort to exaggerate and politicise the virus for partisan ends”.

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