UK doubles down on Brexit threat, hints WTO terms offer more ‘flexibility’

Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday (16 April) doubled-down on its threat to walk away from the EU Single Market this year if a deal on a successor trade pact cannot be reached. It hinted that trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would give the UK more ‘flexibility’ to manage the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. [EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN]

Boris Johnson’s government doubled-down on Thursday (16 April) on its threat to walk away from the EU Single Market this year if a deal on a successor trade pact cannot be reached. It hinted that trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would give the UK more ‘flexibility’ to manage the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will not ask to extend the transition. And, if the EU asks, we will say no,” a UK government spokesman told reporters on Thursday (16 April).

He added that “extending the transition would simply prolong the negotiations, prolong business uncertainty, and delay the moment of control of our borders. It would also keep us bound by EU legislation at a point when we need legislative and economic flexibility to manage the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

At a video-conference between the EU and UK negotiating teams on Wednesday (15 April), UK chief negotiator David Frost repeated the government’s determination to conclude a new trade deal with the EU before the end of 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis has relegated the talks on future EU-UK relations down both sides’ list of priorities, and severely limited the negotiating time.

Only one round of face-to-face talks were held by Frost and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier before the spread of the pandemic prompted lockdown on both sides of the Channel.

Further teleconferences have been scheduled for the weeks beginning 20 April, 11 May and 1 June before a planned ‘High Level’ meeting in June at EU leaders’ level, where the two sides will take stock of progress.

The mid-June meeting has been earmarked by the UK team as the time when they will decide whether a deal can be brokered before the end of 2020 or to leave on ‘no deal’ terms.

The lack of time, combined with the heavy economic damage that the coronavirus pandemic is expected to inflict on economies across Europe and the world, has prompted the head of the International Monetary Fund to intervene.

On Wednesday, the IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva urged the UK and EU “not to add to uncertainty” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic by keeping alive the threat of no trade deal this year and no extension to talks.

Earlier this week, the IMF forecast that the UK economy will suffer a 6.5% contraction in 2020.

“It is tough as it is, let’s not make it any tougher,” said Georgieva.

A Brexit law passed by UK lawmakers in January rules out any further extension beyond December 2020, when the post-Brexit transition period ends.

However, the intransigence of Johnson’s team has prompted speculation that the EU may request an extension citing delays caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

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