Trade

Brexit Britain is running out of time

LONDON — Even as a global pandemic sweeps the planet, Britain remains stubborn.

Despite no indication trade negotiations with the EU will begin again soon, Boris Johnson insists the transition period designed to smooth the U.K.s exit from the bloc will end as planned in December this year. He told MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday the issue had “been legislated for,” referring to the law passed by parliament in January that bans the government from requesting an extension.

The second round of negotiations was meant to begin Wednesday, but EU officials who were bound for London canceled their travel because of the coronavirus, and hopes of conducting talks by videoconference never materialized.

Talks were dealt a fresh blow when chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier announced Thursday he had tested positive for coronavirus. The former French Cabinet minister tweeted that he was “in good spirits” but that he was “following all the necessary instructions, as is my team.” That means isolation. One senior EU ambassador said, “Barnier has now corona thus I think the Brexit negotiations are shut down anyhow.”

Some in the U.K. government remain hopeful. The two sides have discussed whether the previous negotiating timetable could be scrapped in favor of continuous, rolling negotiations, which could be squeezed into a shorter timeframe. Bits of work continue behind the scenes, and there has been some contact between chief U.K. negotiator David Frost and EU deputy Clara Martínez Alberola.

Some pro-Brexit Conservative figures argue Britain should press on with its threats of no deal while all sides are weakened.

“There may well be a short-term blip in those negotiations but not to the extent that will cause a slippage in the program,” one senior government figure said. “We have agreed the timetable. We will stick to the timetable.”

But nobody knows how long the coronavirus crisis could last. Academics from Imperial College London said it could be more than a year before extreme social distancing measures can be fully relaxed. The Brexit negotiators do not have that kind of time. A decision on whether to ask for an extension of up to two years must be made by July.

“If were still in this position in July then that would change the dial,” the senior government figure admitted.

Some pro-Brexit Conservative figures argue Britain should press on with its threats of no deal while all sides are weakened. “As this [coronavirus crisis] goes on, the EU is going to need every bit of help it can get to come out of it and we are their single biggest export market,” said former party leader Iain Duncan Smith. “The imperative is coming home to the European Union that they have to get a deal. It is right to keep negotiating with the EU for the moment. Therefore I would continue the negotiations.”

Former MEP David Campbell Bannerman says the extension narrative on Brexit is driven by anti-Brexit figures | Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Others see conspiracy afoot. Former MEP David Campbell Bannerman said the extension narrative was being driven by anti-Brexit figures. “Clearly a memo has gone round,” he said. “The arch Remoaners seek an opportunity for a two-year delay and are again seeking to destabilize the government.”

Straightening priorities

Many experts say the government is sticking its head in the sand.

“Its just not feasible to carry on major trade negotiations and at the same time prepare for the end of the transition period,” David Henig, director of the European Centre For International Political Economy, told POLITICO.

“The U.K. and the EU have much bigger fish to fry with the coronavirus than focusing on these negotiations,” said Joe Owen, the Brexit program director at the Institute for Government think tank. “There is a lack of political and operational bandwidth.”

Indeed, Johnson is the minister ultimately responsible for trade talks, but is unlikely to be thinking about level playing field rules in the coming months. And setting up a new immigration system, customs system and Irish Sea border would be tough to deliver within the year at the best of times.

One government official admitted that despite work continuing on negotiations, protecting public health is the priority.

One government official admitted that despite work continuing on negotiations with the EU and on a possible no-deal departure, protecting public health is the priority and resources, including manpower, are being redeployed accordingly. An official familiar with the previous no-deal preparations said the coronavirus had knocked Brexit off the top of the government priority list, and that work on the EU exit would now be ticking over while the major health crisis unfolds.

Other governments have already dropped Brexit down their priority list. An official in the administration of Gibraltar said, “Everyone in government is working flat-out on COVID-19 issues and, as a result, other matters, including Brexit, have been given a lower priority.”

New trade deals the U.K. is meant to negotiate with countries such as Japan and Canada could also fall victim to the pandemic. The agreements these countries had with Britain through the EU will fall away unless replacements are in place by the end of the year.

And brand new trade deals, like the one Britain hoped to strike with the U.S., are on ice. The two sides were meant to launch talks this month, but the coronavirus travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump has inevitably spoiled the plans. Department for International Trade officials and their counterparts will be scrambling to keep things on track, and looking at tech options as a possible solution.

Not business as usual

Elsewhere, businesses too are consumed with coronavirus firefighting, rather than preparing for a new customs regime and bracing for a fresh economic hit. “It would be extraordinarily disruptive in an economy that is about to go through a total economic dislocation to thenRead More – Source
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