The second round of Brexit trade negotiations will not take place in London next week, as the UK and EU explore ways to keep talks going despite increasing travel restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.
In a joint statement on Thursday, London and Brussels said face-to-face negotiations would not take place as planned. “Given the latest COVID-19 developments, UK and EU negotiators have today jointly decided not to hold next week’s round of negotiations in London, in the form originally scheduled.”
More than a hundred trade experts from Brussels were due to arrive in London next week to continue from the first round of talks that Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said revealed “very serious divergences” between both parties. The two sides had planned to complete five rounds of talks by mid-May, allowing substantial ground to be covered ahead of an EU-UK summit in June.
In lieu of the talks in London, the negotiators said “both sides are currently exploring alternative ways to continue discussions, including if possible the use of video conferences”.
British government insiders said they hoped to “partially continue” the negotiations through audio and video conferencing but noted that the European Commission has told staff to work from home. “That poses a challenge as people can’t get into their offices. But we still hope they [the talks] can happen in some form next week,” the official said.
But EU officials have stressed that alternatives such as videoconfering — while useful as a last resort — cannot replace face-to-face talks, given the need for both sides to be able to work together on legal text.
Brussels viewed next week’s discussions as an opportunity to delve more deeply into some of the splits laid bare by the first round of negotiations. As well as well-documented disagreements on regulatory alignment and fishing, the talks also revealed that the UK is seeking co-operation on asylum — an area outside of the EU’s negotiation mandate.
The prime minister has until July to decide whether the UK wishes to extend its status quo relationship with the bloc until the end of 2021 — something the prime minister has denied he will do.
Downing Street insiders maintained that there were no plans to delay the second stage of Brexit. “We will not be delaying,” the individual said. Michael Gove, UK cabinet office minister, reiterated this week that the government would never make such a request.
Source: Financial Times