COVID crisis should ‘concentrate EU minds’ on Brexit deal, says UK minister

A handout photograph made available by n10 Downing street shows Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove holding a digital Covid-19 press conference in n10 Downing street in London, Britain 4 April 2020. [EPA/EFE]

The UK minister in charge of post-Brexit trade with the EU insisted on Monday (27 April) that it is “entirely possible” to have a deal by end of December 2020 and that the tight timeline should ‘concentrate’ minds, brushing aside a recent critical assessment from Brussels.

Speaking at a hearing with UK lawmakers, Cabinet office minister Michael Gove, who is coordinating the UK’s negotiating team, said that the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic “should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators, reinforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.”

After 40 hours of video conferences last week, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier accused the UK of deliberately running down the clock and acknowledged that the two sides were at loggerheads on fisheries and regulatory alignment.

The UK had refused to negotiate on fisheries and would not accept a so-called ‘level playing field’ which would prevent London from undercutting EU standards on environmental and social policy and state aid, said Barnier.

In response, Gove said that the EU’s “behaviour suggests that they regard the UK not as a fully sovereign independent state but as a state which is in an association agreement-style relationship with the EU”.

“We are asking for a series of off-the-peg agreements that are based on existing agreements,” he added.

Only two week-long rounds of talks are scheduled before a ‘High Level’ meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU leaders in mid-June is to decide whether an agreement is likely before December.

However, Gove played down the differences between the two sides, and added that the UK would publish its draft text on a future trade pact in “a matter of weeks”.

“Both the UK and the EU will take stock of the situation at the end of June,” said Gove, adding that “I think it is the case that both sides will want to ensure that talks progress”.

“They don’t properly respect the decision that the UK has made. It is clear that the EU is still asking questions that it doesn’t ask of other independent nations.”

The Johnson government has repeatedly ruled out asking for or agreeing to a further extension of the transition period during which the country remains part of the Single Market, prompting fears that the UK is increasingly likely to revert to trading with the EU on WTO terms in 2021.

Earlier, a Downing Street spokesperson told reporters that “there will need to be political movement on the EU side to move negotiations forward, particularly on fisheries and level playing field issues, in order to help find a balanced solution which reflects the political realities on both sides,”

The spokesperson added that UK officials were “ready to keep talking but that does not make us any more likely to agree the EU’s proposals in areas where they are not taking into account the UK’s status as an independent state. All we are seeking is an agreement based on precedent which respects the sovereignty of both sides.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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