MOSCOW (Sputnik) – Up to 11 teams of negotiators from the United Kingdom and the European Union are set to take part in five days of talks via video conference that begin on Monday, with both parties looking to make progress in a range of areas such as trade, fisheries, and security as the end of the Brexit transition period looms on the horizon.
Talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom have been severely disrupted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The EU’s leading negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for the disease in March, and his UK counterpart David Frost entered self-isolation after displaying COVID-19 symptoms, which prompted the cancellation of planned trade talks between both parties.
Despite the epidemiological and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus disease, the UK government has categorically ruled out any extension to the transition period, scheduled to end on 31 December.
It remains to be seen if both parties can meet this deadline, especially as the UK and EU had already set an ambitious target of concluding all the necessary agreements in eleven months, even before the outbreak of the coronavirus disease.
Trade, Security, Fisheries All on Agenda
Frost and Barnier held a video conference on Wednesday to set the agenda for the upcoming talks, the first of three weeks of tough negotiations between London and Brussels ahead of a June review session.
In a joint statement released after their talks, the two lead negotiators expressed their desire to continue with Brexit negotiations despite the disruption caused by COVID-19 and stressed the need for progress to be made ahead of June’s review meeting.
According to an agenda published in the wake of the talks between Barnier and Frost, teams of officials from both the UK and EU will discuss a wide range of issues, covering everything from trade to transport.
Goods trade is top of the agenda with three full days of talks scheduled as both sides look to make progress towards a free trade deal, perhaps the most important agreement that needs to be finalized by the end of the transition period.
Additionally, negotiators will discuss creating a level playing field for open and fair competition from Tuesday through Thursday. Ever since the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill was finalized in December, the EU has consistently stated that any trade agreement with the UK must have zero tariffs, zero quotas, and zero dumping.
Other meetings are scheduled to discuss law enforcement, fisheries, security, transport, and governance, and the talks will conclude on Friday afternoon with a meeting of the chief negotiators.
Extension Talks Loom
On 20 March, in the wake of Barnier’s positive test for the coronavirus disease, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the German Deutschlandfunk radio station that the EU was open to extending the transition period beyond the 31 December deadline due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The UK was forced to ask for an extension to the two-year deadline to complete the withdrawal agreement three times in 2019, as the country’s lawmakers failed to agree on a deal. However, given that the UK officially left the European Union in January, Conservative lawmakers have consistently stated that there will be no prolongation of the transition period.
Discussions of the possibility of extending the transition period, given the current circumstances, reared their head once again this week after International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva urged the UK to ask for an extension to rule out the possibility of the transition period ending with both sides having failed to reach an agreement, resulting in the so-called no-deal Brexit.
On Tuesday, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak stated that the UK government was committed to the current time frame in place, and David Frost further reiterated London’s unwillingness to negotiate beyond 31 December.
“As we prepare for the next Rounds of negotiations, I want to reiterate the Government’s position on the transition period created following our withdrawal from the EU. Transition ends on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks we will say no,” the UK’s chief negotiator wrote on Twitter.
Conservative lawmakers, such as leading Euroskeptic Mark Francois, are also putting pressure on the government to withhold the so-called Brexit divorce payment of 39 billion pounds ($48.7 billion) should the UK and EU fail to reach a trade agreement by the end of the year, the Daily Express newspaper reported on Sunday.
The UK and the EU are continuing to come to terms with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 1 million confirmed cases on the continent and predictions of a global recession looming.
Despite these circumstances, Brexit continues to be a decisive topic, and a week of tough negotiations awaits. It is not yet known if London and Brussels can find a common language and reach the conclusion of a process that has polarized Europe for almost four years, since the June 2016 referendum.