Monday 6 April 2020 5:01 pm

UK sticks to December 2020 Brexit deadline despite coronavirus

The UK government has said it remains “absolutely committed” to Brexit negotiations and the December 2020 transition date despite the coronavirus outbreak limiting talks between the two sides.

The UK and EU have until the end of this year to thrash out a comprehensive free-trade agreement. Keen to deliver on his “get Brexit done” election campaign slogan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has enshrined the transition date in law.

If a deal is not reached by then, Britain will crash out of its transition agreement with the bloc onto World Trade Organization terms. This means tariffs will be higher in a number of areas.

Although contact has been maintained between the two sides, coronavirus has derailed the Brexit talks. 

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for Covid-19 in March. Britain’s negotiator David Frost briefly self-isolated with symptoms, and Johnson is currently in hospital with the virus.

Yet the government today said it is pushing ahead with talks. Downing Street said Frost “is still speaking to EU’s deputy head of task force Clara Martinez Alberola later on today to organise work over the next few weeks”.

“We remain absolutely committed to negotiations,” a Downing Street spokesperson said. They also made a firm commitment that the transition date would not be changed.

Pressure to postpone Brexit talks

The government’s bullish Brexit position is at odds with many in the UK and Europe. Labour’s new leader Sir Kier Starmer at the weekend said it was a “mistake” to put the deadline in law.

The centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament last week called for Britain to request an extension. It said coronavirus meant that common sense should “prevail over ideology”. 

Brexit negotiations have been hampered by lockdowns, travel restrictions and fears over the spread of coronavirus.

A meeting between Barnier and Frost was cancelled in mid-March over fears of contagion. Video conferencing is also difficult due to security fears and the sheer number of negotiators involved.

Former Tory MP Nick de Bois, foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s ex-chief of staff, yesterday said talks should be postponed.

Writing in the Sunday Times, he said it was “illogical” and “incomprehensible” to spend time and money on Brexit negotiations during a pandemic.