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Brexit: impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the latest negotiatons rounds

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.

Brexit: Momentum? From a deal to elections

In the last two weeks, the Brexit debate has gained momentum. For starters, on 17 October the European Union and the United Kingdom reached an agreement on Brexit. The changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration have been made in the context of significant developments in the Brexit debate: the removal of the backstop and the negotiation of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Consequently, Northern Ireland will remain in UK customs territory, but the UK will be responsible for enforcing EU customs procedures. Furthermore, Northern Ireland representatives can vote on continuation of the special arrangement by simple majority 4 years after the end of the transition period.

After the European Council voted unanimously to accept the new deal, the UK Members of Parliament (MPs) gathered for the first time in 37 years on a Saturday to also vote on the new Brexit deal. However, the deal was pre-empted when MPs adopted the Letwin amendment, which requires the Prime Minister to ask for an extension, allowing MPs more time to pass the full Brexit legislation and properly scrutinize the deal. A few hours later European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed he had received three letters: a letter – that was, however, not signed by Boris Johnson – asking for an extension of the Brexit deadline until 31 January 2020; a second letter written by Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, explaining that the first letter was required under the terms of the Benn Act; and finally a third letter from the Prime Minister, regretting the decision of the UK parliament to ask for a delay. The EU reacted that it will not decide on (the length of) a delay before the House of Commons discusses the new Brexit deal, but it is pretty sure that they will accept an extension.

House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, ruled two days later, on 21 October, that he was not going to permit MPs to hold another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Parliamentary Declaration that day. Instead, the House of Commons voted on 22 October on two other proposals. It first approved the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in the second reading, a bill that passes the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law and  gives the government permission to ratify it. However, MPs then rejected the government’s proposed timetable, which would have required MPs to debate and sing off on the Bill in three days. The government’s defeat on the legislative timetable has important implications. First, it is now highly unlikely that the UK will exit the EU on 31 October, and second, MPs will now have more time to propose amendments to the Bill. Johnson decided, after the second vote, to pause the legislation “until the EU has made its intentions clear” regarding the extension that would be granted. At this stage, it is not yet clear if there will be a short delay or a long one, until the end of January.

In this turn of events, Boris Johnson indicated on 24 October that he wants to organize early elections on 12 December. In this way he wants to put extra pressure on the parliament to approve his Brexit agreement. However, the opposition only wants to accept new elections if the European Union agrees to a long delay for the Brexit. A vote on the elections will take place on Monday 28 October.

Time is running out because the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the UK must name an EU commissioner to serve in Brussels if the EU grants a delay to the 31 October Brexit deadline.