The coronavirus has infected the post-Brexit talks, but hasn’t killed them — yet.
On Wednesday, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his U.K. counterpart David Frost will discuss (virtually, of course) the organization of the upcoming negotiating rounds. Both sides stress the post-Brexit process is continuing despite the coronavirus, and London is also insisting the transition period will end on December 31, the ultimate deadline for a deal.
But because of the global pandemic, a negotiating timeframe that was already deemed improbable has turned nearly impossible.
The second and third round of the talks on the future relationship between the EU and U.K. were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Both Barnier and Frost also announced last month that they were suffering coronavirus symptoms — both have since resumed work — which further delayed the schedule. Until now, attempts to restart talks through videoconferencing have been hampered by security concerns.
Despite this, the plan is to hold a virtual round of negotiations in the week of April 20, as POLITICO reported last week. The U.K. has suggested negotiations will become a rolling process without being constrained by dates. But that doesn’t mean it will be business as usual, four EU officials told POLITICO.
The voices urging Downing Street ask for an extension of the transition period to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of the year are growing stronger.
“Let’s be honest: The political leadership is focused on something else now,” one EU official said. “If your house is on fire, that’s your first and sole priority.”
Most important of all, valuable negotiating time has been lost in the last couple of weeks. While both Downing Street and Commission spokespersons have stressed that experts from both sides have been in touch to discuss each other’s negotiating texts, the hard work of looking for a compromise is yet to start.
Experts “can look at texts and provide clarifications, but it’s all on a very technical level. At a certain point, political choices have to be made,” said the EU official.
On the same page?
After the first round of talks at the beginning of March, Barnier said there were “very serious divergences” between the two sides — those haven’t been tackled since. Whereas the EU has sent a comprehensive draft proposal for a post-Brexit deal to London, Britain so far sent only partial texts to Brussels.
Virtual negotiations also have their limits. The first Brexit round in Brussels involved over 200 people. Negotiations were divided into 11 separate meetings based on topics, where negotiators discussed a wide range of issues simultaneously.
“Both sides are working on the best possible solution given the circumstances,” said one EU diplomat. “But you can’t reach the same dynamic as in a physical round. No one is that creative.”
The lack of physical meetings also has consequences for the intra-European dynamic.
The ability to speak from one script was Brussels’ greatest asset in the first phase of Brexit. It’s why Barnier put a lot of time and energy into personally traveling to EU capitals to make sure everyone remained on board if uncomfortable choices have to be made.
But a leaked letter from the German ambassador to the EU, Michael Clauss, to his political bosses in Berlin lays out how difficult that unity will be to preserve in the coming months. The meetings where EU countries are briefed by the Commission on the talks have been difficult to organize in a secure, virtual manner. And it’s difficult to understand each other’s sensitivities when you’re not in the same room, Clauss said.
Downing Street holds firm
The voices urging Downing Street ask for an extension of the transition period to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of the year are growing stronger. Their numbers include the European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, EU trade chief Phil Hogan, David McAllister, who chairs the Brexit group in the Parliament, and the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats in the U.K.
Some EU officials argue that as the entire world is facing “the deepest economic recession in our lifetime,” as the WTO put it, it would seem absurd for the U.K. to put even more stress on the British economy via a no-deal Brexit. And the coronavirus offers the U.K. government an easy scapegoat for a U-turn on its extension policy.
But in Downing Street, nobody seems willing to pick up the ball. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering from his own brush with COVID-19, told the House of Commons mid-March that the issue “has been legislated for,” referring to the law that bans the government from requesting an extension.
A senior U.K. government figure told POLITICO: “We are leaving on December 31 for definite. The prime minister is adamant. That is the one thing that will not move.”
A number of British business groups are hoping the government does request an extension, or at least extends current customs practices temporarily so they don’t face twin problems of coronavirus and a new, post-Brexit customs regime simultaneously. However, aside from a few logistics groups, they are either holding their tongues for fear of jumping the gun, or are too consumed by battling the pandemic to give it too much thought.
A delay to the end of the transition would create its own issues. The U.K. would also become a third country when it comes to the next EU long-term budget come January 1, even if an extension is agreed, meaning it would have to negotiate payment and access terms to individual EU programs and schemes.
The two sides are set to hold a high-level conference in June to take stock of progress in the talks. They will have to decide on whether to extend the transition by July 1.
The issue has not been formally raised at the first meeting of the joint committee, which is responsible for the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, or in any other discussion so far, the Commission briefed EU diplomats last week, according to two people in the (virtual) room.
“The extension is just not being discussed right now,” the EU official said. “But everybody knows it’s around the corner … once we survive this storm, political leaders on both sides have to ask themselves: Can we handle another factor of uncertainty or is an extension the best way to go?”
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