Britain’s economy is in free fall, and the government is struggling to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson isn’t giving an inch on Brexit.
Mr. Johnson spoke to the European Union’s top officials Monday and insisted that he won’t agree to extend the deadline for talks on a trade deal even though the pandemic has constrained negotiations and diverted resources to more pressing, public-health matters. His refusal to budge puts Britain on course to cut its remaining ties to the EU on Dec. 31 and depart without an agreement on trade, transportation, communications and a host of other areas.
After Monday’s video conference, Mr. Johnson said he wanted the talks wrapped up this summer and urged both sides to “put a tiger in the tank."
“I don’t think we’re actually that far apart. But what we need now is to see a bit of oomph in the negotiations,” he told reporters. “I don’t want to see it going on until the autumn or winter as I think perhaps in Brussels they would like. I don’t see any point in that, so let’s get it done.”
Britain formally left the EU in January, but the country has remained in the bloc’s single market and customs union as part of a transition period that runs until the end of the year. Both sides are supposed to use that time to negotiate a wide-ranging agreement on trade and other issues. The transition can be extended for up to two years, but any extension must be agreed to before July 1. Until now an extension seemed almost certain given the challenges of the pandemic, especially in Britain.
The U.K. has had almost 300,000 confirmed cases of the virus, and more than 41,000 people have died – the highest death toll in Europe. The outbreak has also ravaged the British economy, which shrank 25 per cent in the three months to the end of April.
The trade talks have been going on remotely, but little progress has been made. Much of the impasse relates to fisheries, enforcement and the need for a “level playing field,” or how closely Britain must follow EU regulations to gain tariff-free access to the union. Both negotiators also became ill with the virus, and the discussions fell behind while they recovered.
Earlier this month the EU’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, accused Mr. Johnson of betraying promises Britain made last year in a political declaration that set a framework for the discussions. “In all areas, the U.K. continues to backtrack on the commitments it has taken in the political declaration,” Mr. Barnier said. “We will not accept this backtracking.”
Britain’s negotiator, David Frost, agreed there hadn’t been much progress, but he and other British officials have blamed the EU for trying to keep the U.K. bound to European laws and regulations.
Mr. Johnson has refused to waver on the Dec. 31 deadline ever since his Conservative Party won an overwhelming victory in last December’s election on a promise to “get Brexit done.” He reiterated that position during Monday’s video conference with Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which represents EU leaders; Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s administrative arm; and David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament. A brief statement after the meeting said: “The parties noted the U.K.’s decision not to request any extension to the transition period. The transition period will therefore end on 31 December 2020.”
Both sides agreed to intensify the talks in July, but time is running short. The EU has said that any deal must be finalized by October to ensure there is enough time for ratification by the 27 member states. Most trade experts doubt a comprehensive deal can be struck by then.
Mr. Johnson wants an agreement reached quickly to provide some assurance to business leaders who are coping with the pandemic and worry that leaving the EU without a deal will compound their problems. Nearly half of British exports go to the EU, and once Britain leaves the single market, those exports will be subject to EU tariffs. To ease some of those concerns, the British government plans to slash tariffs on imports and hold off on strict border controls to ensure goods flow smoothly into the country.
After Monday’s meeting, Mr. Michel tweeted that a “broad and ambitious agreement, in line with [EU] guidelines, is in our mutual interest.” But he added: “Ready to put a tiger in the tank but not to buy a pig in a poke. Level playing field is essential.”
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