Trade

Will the coronavirus kill the Brexit negotiations?

The coronavirus has infected the post-Brexit talks, but hasnt killed them — yet.

On Wednesday, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his U.K. counterpart David Frost will discuss (virtually, of course) the organization of the upcoming negotiating rounds. Both sides stress the post-Brexit process is continuing despite the coronavirus, and London is also insisting the transition period will end on December 31, the ultimate deadline for a deal.

But because of the global pandemic, a negotiating timeframe that was already deemed improbable has turned nearly impossible.

The second and third round of the talks on the future relationship between the EU and U.K. were canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. Both Barnier and Frost also announced last month that they were suffering coronavirus symptoms — both have since resumed work — which further delayed the schedule. Until now, attempts to restart talks through videoconferencing have been hampered by security concerns.

Despite this, the plan is to hold a virtual round of negotiations in the week of April 20, as POLITICO reported last week. The U.K. has suggested negotiations will become a rolling process without being constrained by dates. But that doesnt mean it will be business as usual, four EU officials told POLITICO.

The voices urging Downing Street ask for an extension of the transition period to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of the year are growing stronger.

“Lets be honest: The political leadership is focused on something else now,” one EU official said. “If your house is on fire, thats your first and sole priority.”

Most important of all, valuable negotiating time has been lost in the last couple of weeks. While both Downing Street and Commission spokespersons have stressed that experts from both sides have been in touch to discuss each others negotiating texts, the hard work of looking for a compromise is yet to start.

Experts “can look at texts and provide clarifications, but its all on a very technical level. At a certain point, political choices have to be made,” said the EU official.

On the same page?

After the first round of talks at the beginning of March, Barnier said there were “very serious divergences” between the two sides — those havent been tackled since. Whereas the EU has sent a comprehensive draft proposal for a post-Brexit deal to London, Britain so far sent only partial texts to Brussels.

Virtual negotiations also have their limits. The first Brexit round in Brussels involved over 200 people. Negotiations were divided into 11 separate meetings based on topics,where negotiators discussed a wide range of issues simultaneously.

“Both sides are working on the best possible solution given the circumstances,” said one EU diplomat. “But you cant reach the same dynamic as in a physical round. No one is that creative.”

The lack of physical meetings also has consequences for the intra-European dynamic.

The ability to speak from one script was Brussels greatest asset in the first phase of Brexit. Its why Barnier put a lot of time and energy into personally traveling to EU capitals to make sure everyone remained on board if uncomfortable choices have to be made.

But a leaked letter from the German ambassador to the EU, Michael Clauss, to his political bosses in Berlin lays out how difficult that unity will be to preserve in the coming months. The meetings where EU countries are briefed by the Commission on the talks have been difficult to organize in a secure, virtual manner. And its difficult to understand each others sensitivities when youre not in the same room, Clauss said.

Downing Street holds firm

The voices urging Downing Street ask for an extension of the transition period to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of the year are growing stronger. Their numbers include the European Peoples Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, EU trade chief Phil Hogan, David McAllister, who chairs the Brexit group in the Parliament, and the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats in the U.K.

Some EU officials argue that as the entire world is facing “the deepest economic recession in our lifetime,” as the WTO put it, it would seem absurd for the U.K. to put even more stress on the British economy via a no-deal Brexit. And the coronavirus offers the U.K. government an easy scapegoat for a U-turn on its extension policy.

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