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Is coronavirus the ‘common enemy’ that will soften divisions between UK and EU negotiators?

08 April 2020

Sabine Tyldesley examines how COVID-19 is affecting the UK-EU negotiations

There is no denying the coronavirus crisis is top story one, two and three. It’s an all-consuming public (and personal) health and economic emergency.

It is hard to believe that a year ago Prime Minister Theresa May had just missed the withdrawal deadline set by triggering Article 50 and had written to the European Union to request a further delay to Brexit until 30 June 2019. At that time, no one knew this deadline too would be missed, as would the one after, and one Prime Minister and several Brexit Secretaries later, the UK would leave the EU to enter a transition period - and that it would be a global pandemic that might break the deadlock.

While officials confirmed talks with the EU on what comes after the transition period will continue, face to face meetings have understandably been suspended following social distancing measures. Both chief negotiators are also self-isolating following EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s positive test for COVID-19 in early March.

Last year, Theresa May requested the extension to the exit deadline to avoid a cliff-edge for business in case no withdrawal deal could be agreed and passed by Parliament. The situation today is strangely similar with a deadline of 30 June 2020 looming again. This time, this is the day by which the UK may request an extension to the transition period due to end on 31 December 2020. A special EU-UK summit is planned for 18 June to formally take stock of progress.

But there has been little progress. The current round of Brexit talks has been suspended, the schedule for negotiating rounds which included weeks for consultation and preparation has been scrapped, meaning the second negotiating round scheduled for 18-20 March 2020 in London was postponed.

The new Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has urged the Government to extend the Brexit transition period, adding that enshrining the deadline in law had been “a mistake”. A recent poll also found that 64% of voters want Prime Minister Johnson to “request an extension to the transition period in order to focus properly on the coronavirus”.

Government insists Brexit will not be delayed after promises that the negotiations for a new future relationship - including a trade deal preferable to the WTO rules the UK would otherwise fall back on – could be completed in that timeframe. Before Prime Minister Johnson tested positive himself, sources close to him said there was “no way” that the prime minister would consider a delay. His spokesperson reaffirmed this on Monday saying “we remain absolutely determined to continue the negotiations”.

The timelines were tight even during normal times, and now, with countries battling an economic and health emergency at a scale no one has ever faced before, thinking about Brexit trade negotiations seems impossible.

Both sides are exploring video-conferencing options but assessments of the success of this have been damning: so far they had proved impossible and it would be unmanageable to continue negotiations without face-to-face talks. The complexities of the sticking issues have proven difficult to resolve remotely.

Hilary Benn, Chair of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union asked the UK Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove to give an update. Gove confirmed that last week the UK and EU exchanged draft legal texts and were exploring flexibility in the structure of the negotiations for the coming weeks but was unable to provide Parliament with a timetable of meetings during the transition period as this had not been agreed.

Shortly after the UK Chief negotiator David Frost tweeted reassurances that talks had continued and confirmed more details would be published next week when he would speak to his EU counterpart and aimed to reach agreement on a timetable for the discussions needed in April and May.

For the future relationship, the fault lines on issues like regulations, environmental protection and labour law, state aid and tariffs seemed to run deep just a few weeks ago. But since coronavirus has taken hold, everything has changed.

The Commission has adopted a Temporary Framework to enable Member States to support the economy in the COVID-19 outbreak effectively scrapping state aid rules.

The UK Government has put forward a programme to support business and workers. The former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn reacted to this saying he had been “absolutely right” about the Government’s ability to increase public spending to fix social wrongs.

The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has removed tariffs - which can be up to 12 per cent - on the price of vital medical equipment including ventilators, coronavirus testing kits and protective clothing until 31 July 2020 in agreement with G20 partners.

Visas for overseas doctors, nurses and paramedics due to expire before 1 October 2020 will have an extra 12 months added to their stay, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced.

It is dawning on us all, across every nation, as we face this joint threat – this common enemy – that we are all in this together. Governments are calling on individuals, businesses and politicians of every colour to bridge their divides to help protect not just one another but also our interconnected economies.

Extension or no extension, once we have beaten coronavirus together, maybe we won’t just have removed the barrier to face to face negotiations, but also had some perspective on those divisions which are preventing agreement in the future relationship and trade talks.