UK to blame hard Brexit on COVID-19, warns EU trade chief

The UK is preparing to walk away from trade talks with the EU and blame the impasse on the coronavirus pandemic, EU Trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, said on Thursday (7 May). [EPA-EFE/Aris Oikonomou]

The United Kingdom is preparing to walk away from trade talks with the EU and blame the impasse on the coronavirus pandemic, EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said on Thursday (7 May).

With only two more rounds of talks on a future trade and political agreement before a mid-June meeting between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU has become increasingly exasperated by what they perceive as London’s lack of urgency in recent weeks.

“Despite the urgency and enormity of the negotiating challenge, I am afraid we are only making very slow progress in the Brexit negotiations,” Hogan, who had previously been a cabinet minister in Ireland, told RTÉ. He added that “there is no real sign that our British friends are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so”.

“I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that COVID is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don’t want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame COVID for everything,” the trade chief said.

The UK insists that it wants to broker a deal but that this will only be possible if Michel Barnier’s negotiating team drop their demands for regulatory alignment and for unchanged access to UK fishing waters.

London wants to agree a basic ‘no tariff, no quota’ free trade deal with the EU, alongside a series of sector-specific deals, to be agreed and ratified before December 2020, when its post-Brexit transition period is due to finish. However, the UK has yet to table formal negotiating texts in a number of areas, including fisheries.

UK officials have also hinted that trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would give their economy ‘more flexibility’ to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

Estimates before the coronavirus pandemic forecast that Ireland’s economy would take the biggest hit from a no-deal Brexit, worth 2.5% of GDP, and Hogan warned that COVID-19 and Brexit will “be an almighty blow to the UK economy later in the year” which would also affect Ireland.

With leaders in London and the EU prioritising their responses to the coronavirus pandemic, Commission official had expected the UK to be more amenable to extending the process. However, Johnson’s government has repeatedly said that it will not request or accept an extension of the transition period.

These concerns have been compounded by an ongoing row over whether the Commission should be allowed to keep an EU delegation office in Northern Ireland after the transition period ends.

The UK has twice formally rejected a Commission plan to set up the office in Belfast to help oversee the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, with UK minister Penny Mordaunt telling Barnier and EU diplomatic service chief, Helga Schmid, that an EU office would be “divisive in political and community terms” in the province.

Following the last round of talks in April, Barnier insisted that the EU needs “clear evidence that the UK is advancing with procedures for new customs arrangements”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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