During the last two months, the world has come to a stop because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Trade negotiations have not been exempted, and the EU-UK negotiations have been severely affected. As the virus broke out in Europe, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for the coronavirus and only a day later the UK chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost self-isolated, together with other key members of the negotiation teams. This obviously casted a shadow of doubt on the future of the negotiations, when expectations were already quite limited concerning what could be achieved in such a short amount of time.
Despite the major disruption, and the delay taken in the negotiations, the EU and the UK resumed the Brexit discussions on 15 April. During that call they agreed on negotiating rounds lasting a full week during the weeks of 20 April, 11 May and 1 June.
After the negotiations round of 20 April, Michel Barnier immediately expressed his disappointment regarding the progress of the talks, specifically on key issues such level playing field and fisheries. The UK, too, recognized the lack of progress on governance and level playing field and stressed that there cannot be any deal until the EU drops its insistence on imposing conditions on the UK which are not found in any other EU trade agreements.
Unfolding a blaming game between the UK and the EU, where Britain accuses the EU of treating the UK as “unworthy” partner in the negotiations, Michel Barnier blaming the UK for not being realistic and EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan adding that the UK would be ready to accept a no-deal, while blaming the failure to reach a deal on the impact of COVID-19 on the negotiations
However, according to Frost, a comprehensive free-trade agreement is within reach, alongside individual agreements on issues such as law enforcement, nuclear energy, and aviation. On 19 May the UK Government published 12 legal texts on several of the above mentioned issues which will be the basis of the last negotiations rounds in June, following the EU’s publication its own draft trade deal earlier this year.This new UK text appears to be both surpringly ambitious in certain areas (for example, equivalence provisions on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and technical barriers to trade) and less surprinsingly, lacking ambition on regulatory cooperation and level playing field.
Extension of Brexit?
As stated above, there will be only one additional negotiation round before the agreed high-level stock-taking conference, where the UK and the EU are supposed to determine whether enough progress has been made or if an extension to the transition period is required in order to reach an agreement.
Such an extension would have to be requested by the UK Government, and agreed by the European Council before 1 July. However, the UK has consistently made clear that it will not ask to extend the transition period as it would only prolong the negotiations, business uncertainty, and delay the moment at which the UK can take back control of its sovereignty.
With the lack of progress, how the events will unfold in the coming two months remain extremely uncertain, while pressure on both sides of the channel grow in favor of an extension.