EU-UK trade negotiations to be put into freezer

Pressure builds on Boris Johnson to postpone talks due to coronavirus outbreak

The EU-UK talks on the post-Brexit relations would most probably be put deep into the freezer mere weeks after being launched due to the coronavirus pandemic, news wires reported. On one hand EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for the virus and is under quarantine, while the UK's David Frost is in self-isolation with symptoms, and on the other British PM Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to extend the country’s timetable to finish the talks and leave EU.

The UK formally left the EU on 31 January, but it remains a de facto member until 31 December because of an 11-month transition period designed to give the sides the time to negotiate a future trade agreement. So far Johnson has been adamant that he won’t agree to an extension of the trade talks, but as the toll inflicted by the deadly virus mounts, he’s under growing pressure to agree to extend the deadline, and many political observers predict he’ll soon relent.

Europe is currently the coronavirus epicentre, with Italy recording more deaths than any other country, and the number of cases there and in Spain, Germany, France and the UK on steep rise. Given the upheaval caused by the shuttering of much of Britain to contain the virus, focusing on Brexit now would almost certainly anger a lot of voters, including many who are pro-Brexit. A YouGov poll published on Saturday found that 55% of Britons favoured extending the deadline, while 24% were opposed. The remaining 21% were unsure.

“No serious negotiations can go on right now,” according to Alan Winters, a trade expert at the University of Sussex. Government officials have said the talks could continue using teleconferencing technologies, but that would still require teams of 10 to 20 people on each side being crammed into a room together, which could help spread the disease. Even if some work could be done remotely, “eventually you are going to need eye-to-eyel negotiations,” Winters says.

Johnson has indicated that he prefers a bare-boned trade pact with the EU, even though the bloc is the UK’s largest trading partner by far. That’s because he doesn’t want Britain to continue to be aligned with Brussels’ regulatory regime so he'll have greater freedom to strike deals with other countries. Johnson also says he’s willing to leave without an agreement if one cannot be finalised by year’s end. Economists say that both scenarios would badly squeeze Britain’s economy, but a no-deal Brexit would also likely cause disruptions to food and medical supplies.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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