The U.K. and EU chief Brexit negotiators are in self-isolation Friday as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, throwing the timeline of Brexit talks into doubt.
David Frost, 55, is in self-isolation after showing symptoms of coronavirus, according to a British official.
And the EU’s Michel Barnier, 69, announced Thursday that he had tested positive for the virus.
The two top officials met for the first round of talks in Brussels two weeks ago, but have not had contact since.
“I would like to inform you that I have tested positive for #COVID19. I am doing well and in good spirits. I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team,” Barnier tweeted. “For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together.”
A U.K. government representative responded: “We send Michel Barnier our best wishes for his recovery.”
British-EU trade talks are due to be completed by the end of the year. If no deal is reached, the two sides would trade on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, which would involve the imposition of tariffs and quotas.
Anadolu Agency (AA) spoke with two experts to see if the coronavirus outbreak would affect Brexit talks.
UK: Keep calm and carry on
Before coronavirus emerged, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out any further extension to Brexit, as he ran his election campaign on the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
Extending the transition period would also mean the U.K. would have to make financial contributions to the EU – something London would not want to do but Brussels would be happy to see happen as the EU has struggled to fill the £60 billion ($70 billion) hole left by the U.K. withdrawal.
One round of Brexit talks scheduled for earlier this week was already postponed due to the outbreak.
“We are confident that we can get this done, and I do not think that delaying Brexit negotiations would give anyone on either side of the channel the certainty they need,” said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
It was suggested continuing negotiation through measures including increased use of video conferencing. The idea has run into problems considering the scale of the talks. The previous round of talks involved more than 200 officials across 11 working groups.
David Paton, professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, said: “There is no need to delay Brexit talks, at least at this stage. Clearly the EU side has an incentive to delay as they would be happy to see the U.K. tied to EU rules and paying contributions for as long as possible.
“What is needed is some clarity from the EU side as to whether they are really interested in a trade deal which is acceptable to the U.K., i.e. with U.K. no longer subject to the European Court of Justice in any respect. The indications so far are that they may not be interested and, if that is the case, there is no reason at all for an extension given the additional uncertainty that will bring.”
“If the EU is able to commit in principle to a mutually acceptable trade deal, and the coronavirus crisis continues to dominate matters for several more months, then there might be a case for a very limited extension to tidy up technical arrangements. There is certainly no need to agree such an extension in the next few months and the U.K. government should resist the inevitable pressure they will face to do so.”
EU: Open to extension
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told German radio the EU would be open to British requests to delay Brexit if such a request came through.
Professor Tim Bale, the deputy director of The U.K. in a Changing Europe initiative, said: “The U.K. government has made it clear again and again that it does not want to seek an extension. However, it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that it will have any other reasonable choice. All its attention – quite rightly – is now focused upon the coronavirus emergency.”
“This simply doesn’t leave it with sufficient bandwidth to conduct the negotiations as planned. Johnson should be able to get away with asking for an extension in those circumstances: even most Brexiteers, one presumes, would understand.”
The U.K.-wide death toll from coronavirus hit 177 on Friday, an increase of 40 in 24 hours – the largest day-on-day increase since the start of the outbreak.
The virus officially known as COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China last December, and has spread to at least 166 countries and territories. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic.
Out of more than 275,000 confirmed cases, the death toll now exceeds 11,000 and more than 88,000 have recovered, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Despite the rising number of cases, most who become infected suffer only mild symptoms and recover.
Poll: British people support extension
According to a poll carried out by YouGov, 55% of the people in the Kingdom support an extension to the Dec. 31 deadline while 24% are against it. Some 21% stated that they “don’t know.” A whopping 79% of “Remain” voters supported the extension, the survey showed, while only one-third of “Leave” voters backed this. Some 44% of “Leave” voters are outright against the extension.