BRUSSELS – As if the Brexit trade negotiations were not tortuous enough, the coronavirus added a twist at a crucial stage on Thursday when top-level talks had to be suspended because an EU negotiator tested positive for COVID-19.
It added uncertainty to the negotiations as a deadline looms ever closer and both sides are still divided on three key issues.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that together with his U.K. counterpart, David Frost, “we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period." Talks among lower-ranking officials will continue in the meantime. And once the top negotiators can resume meeting face-to-face, the talks should be back in London.
Any long suspension of talks will make it even tougher for the negotiators to clinch a deal ahead of Jan. 1, when the existing trade agreements between the EU and Britain expire.
“This can cause some delays but these negotiations have been a succession of delays. So this should not scare us off," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after the issue had been briefly discussed at an EU video summit.
With face-to-face talks off the table, “the UK and EU teams have agreed to continue to negotiate remotely for the time being. The talks will resume in person when it is judged safe to do so," Downing Street said.
The virus, which has been brutal for people across the EU and U.K., did not spare the negotiations over the past nine months. Barnier tested positive in March and Frost self-isolated that same month after developing coronavirus symptoms. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized in April and is currently back in coronavirus quarantine until next Thursday.
It appears the situation was relatively under control since the U.K. side said none of their negotiators needed to self-isolate that members of the team would be traveling back to Britain as they usually do.
“When it is deemed safe, we expect talks to resume in London," Downing Street said.
Time is running out as the EU will need about four weeks to complete the approval process of any deal that is agreed upon.
Only on Wednesday a top European Union official said that trade talks with the United Kingdom still face “substantial work” that might spill over into next week.
The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, but a transition period when EU rules apply to trade and other issues runs until the end of December. Both sides had hoped to get a trade deal by then to protect hundreds of thousands of jobs and businesses that could suffer if Brexit leads to a sharp end to existing trade relations.
To guard against a breakup of negotiations, France and Belgium, two close neighbors of Britain, asked at an EU summit to speed up preparations for a no-deal scenario on Jan. 1 when the sudden change of the end of a transition without a trade deal could cause immediate disruptions in commerce and chaos at borders.
Talks have proven exceptionally difficult, with the two sides refusing to budge on three key issues - fisheries, how to check compliance of the deal and standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.
The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to retain access to the EU’s lucrative markets, much like any EU country, without agreeing to follow its rules. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards, and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.
Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state.
If there is no deal, businesses on both sides of the English Channel will face tariffs and other barriers to trade starting on Jan. 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the U.K., whose economy is already reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.
Jill Lawless contributed from London