Brussels (AFP) – British and EU officials resumed Brexit trade talks Monday after a break because of the coronavirus, which is making an end-of-year deal look even more unlikely.
After a first round in early March negotiations were suspended for six weeks as officials focused on the deadly virus sweeping Europe.
A June deadline set by London to assess the chances of an agreement is now fast approaching.
A spokesman for the British government said it expected “further constructive talks with the aim of making progress ahead of June”, but repeated again that it had no intention of asking for an extension for the talks.
In a tweet, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier thanked both negotiating teams for their flexibility while stressing they “must advance across all areas” to make progress by June.
The latest round of talks took place Monday by videolink because of virus restrictions.
The novel coronavirus has affected officials directly, hitting both Barnier and his British counterpart David Frost, both since recovered.
It also, dramatically, put Prime Minister Boris Johnson in intensive care for three days and left him convalescing this week.
Despite the ticking clock and the extra pressure brought by the worst global pandemic in living memory, Johnson’s government rules out extending Britain’s transition period to negotiate a future relationship with the EU.
– Fears of no-deal –
Britain left the EU on January 31 but remains tied to it until the end of December.
Fears are growing that no deal will be reached, meaning that WTO rules with high tariffs and customs barriers would come into force between the UK and EU.
That prospect so alarmed the head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, that last week she urged Brussels and London to extend their deadline, saying it was in everyone’s interests to reduce uncertainty amid the economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic.
But Johnson has remained deaf to the appeal, despite Britain’s budget watchdog warning that the coronavirus lockdown could shrink the country’s economy by a massive 13 percent in 2020.
Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre warned there could be “no meaningful negotiations” at this point — because of the technical limitations of video talks and because politicians’ focus is on fighting the pandemic.
In these circumstances, it will probably be necessary to extend the deadline to avoid Britain crashing out with no deal and facing a further economic shock on top of the coronavirus recession, Zuleeg said.
– A ‘Johnson Brexit’ –
“But so far, Brexit has never been about the best economic option. It very much depends on what price Boris Johnson is willing to pay for what is portrayed in the UK as ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’,” Zuleeg told AFP.
A European source close to the talks said a “Johnson Brexit” — sacrificing close links to the EU in order to be free of its rules — was already going to rattle the economy.
“With corona, it’s going to be a double shock for businesses,” the source told AFP.
The virus adds another layer of difficulty to an already complex negotiation, where, at the end of the first round in March, the two sides could only note their disagreements rather than make concrete progress.
London is trying to negotiate a series of packages in different domains including fishing, goods, aviation, justice and energy. But EU leaders want a single overarching accord.
The thorny problem of fishing rights — deeply important to several key EU states, notably France — could derail the whole process, according to some in Brussels.
This week’s round of talks are to last until Friday. Barnier and Frost opened the proceedings on Monday and their teams will start technical sector-by-sector negotiations on Tuesday.