London – Despite the deadlock in post-Brexit EU trade talks and the disruption of coronavirus, London still refuses to consider delaying a December deadline — and the outbreak may even have toughened its stance.
When Britain left the European Union in January, both sides agreed to a standstill transition until December 31 in which to agree a new relationship to replace five decades of close ties.
It was always a challenge to get a deal in 11 months, and the coronavirus outbreak has made it harder by forcing negotiators to work online.
Many British businesses tackling the fallout of a nationwide lockdown are now even more fearful of new trade barriers, calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for more time.
He can request an extra year or two to negotiate a deal, but this must be agreed by July 1 — and he continues to insist he will not take the option.
One senior UK official close to the talks on Friday even described the June 30 deadline for an extension as “immutable”.
“It doesn’t matter to us. We don’t want one. We wouldn’t accept one if we were offered.”
– No-deal –
Just a few months after winning re-election in December on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson said this week Britons “want to see it settled”.
Many in Westminster and Brussels have believed that, faced with the risk of cutting trade ties with Britain’s biggest trade partner in December, Johnson will give in and ask for an extension.
But for many, the coronavirus outbreak has emboldened the argument that Britain must be free to go its own way.
What might happen next in the Brexit process
A source close to the UK negotiating team told AFP that London will not want to be tied into any long-term EU recovery measures in which, under the transition terms, it will have no say.
Equally, analysts say the UK will want the freedom to take its own measures — strengthening its opposition to demands from Brussels for common standards to be included in the new trade deal.
“If the UK wants to react effectively and quickly to the economic recession ensuing from the lockdown, it needs to keep as much regulatory freedom as possible,” noted Leila Simona Talani, professor of International Political Economy at King’s College London.
She suggested that coronavirus, from the UK’s perspective at least, “makes an extension less viable and a no-deal outcome more likely”.
There is also the cynical view that any economic damage from failing to get an EU trade deal could be blamed on the virus fall-out.
Significantly, Keir Starmer, the new leader of the main opposition Labour party, has not joined calls for the transition to be extended, despite his opposition to Brexit.
“The government says it’s going to get it done by the end of the year. I don’t think it’s practical, but we’re a long way from December,” he told LBC radio.
– Last-minute –
Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia group believes Johnson will not extend in June but is looking ahead to the possibility of a last-minute deal.
“His view is that if it is going to happen, it will come together in the run-up to December, seen in Downing Street as the real deadline,” Rahman wrote in a commentary.
He added: “The prime minister is ready to gamble that the EU will feel under more pressure in the new coronavirus world to secure a trade agreement than the UK.”
Britain’s troubled relationship with the EU
However, Rahman and others note that this approach brings major risks.
The EU is used to last-minute deals, and one European source noted to AFP to “never underestimate the ingenuity of public servants when it comes to finding imaginative solutions”.
But previous deals have been struck between member states, and Britain is no longer part of the EU club.
– No fudge –
The divorce terms set out clearly how the transition might be extended, and it will not be easy to change them.
“Everybody expects to fudge because over the last few years, we’ve always fudged things,” a European diplomat told AFP.
“There isn’t the fudge. This is the main problem.”
By Alice Ritchie with Alex Pigman in Brussels