Coronavirus: Boris Johnson facing further pressure to seek Brexit transition extension

30 March 2020, 20:31

Mr Johnson has been adamant he will not request any extension to the transition period
Mr Johnson has been adamant he will not request any extension to the transition period. Picture: PA

By Megan White

Boris Johnson is facing further pressure to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period amid the coronavirus epidemic.

The biggest grouping in the European Parliament has warned the UK will face a "double whammy" if the Prime Minister insists on ending Britain's compliance with EU single market rules at the end of the year.

The warning echoes calls from opposition parties in the UK who argue the Government must now seek more time for trade talks to continue.

Europe became the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak after it moved west from China, with Italy and Spain among the world’s hardest hit countries.

Mr Johnson has been adamant he will not request any extension to the transition period beyond December 31, arguing it should be possible to negotiate a free trade agreement by then.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said the Government had no plan to change course on the negotiations, telling reporters on Monday: "The transition period ends on December 31 2020. This is enshrined in UK law."

But the European People's Party (EPP) said the coronavirus epidemic further complicated what many in Brussels regard as an unrealistically tight timetable for securing a deal.

MEP Christophe Hansen, a negotiator on the parliament's international trade committee, said: "Under these extraordinary circumstances, I cannot see how the UK Government would choose to expose itself to the double whammy of the coronavirus and the exit from the EU single market, which will inevitably add to the disruption, deal or no deal.

"I can only hope that common sense and substance will prevail over ideology.

"An extension of the transition period is the only responsible thing to do."

German MEP David McAllister, who chairs the UK co-ordination group in the parliament, said now was the time for the UK to change tack over an extension to the transition.

"The coronavirus pandemic complicates the already very ambitious schedule," he said.

"The EU has always been open to extending the transition period. The ball is now clearly in the British court.

"The United Kingdom would have to submit an official request. So far, the UK Government has constantly rejected such an option.

"Under the current circumstances, London should carefully re-examine a prolongation."

The warning comes as the EU-UK joint committee set up to implement the Withdrawal Agreement was scheduled to meet for the first time.

Because of the outbreak, the talks will take place by video conference, with the British side led by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and the EU by European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

Downing Street confirmed informal talks on a post-Brexit trading relationship between the UK and Brussels are continuing, despite an imposed lockdown on most of Europe and the lead negotiators on both sides of the Channel having been struck down by Covid-19.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier is reportedly continuing to convalesce after contracting the disease earlier this month, while his UK counterpart David Frost was also forced to self-isolate.

The PM's spokesman said: "We have shared legal texts and they are the subject of informal discussions between ourselves and the European Commission.

"They are conversations that are taking place via telephone as both sides analyse each other's respective legal texts.

"We'd expect those types of conversations to be carrying on this week."

Following the first meeting of the EU-UK joint committee, the European Commission said the two sides had agreed on the importance for the UK to "set out its plans over the coming months" regarding the implementation of the Irish protocol to prevent a hard border.

A statement released after the talks said: "(European Commission) vice-president Maros Sefcovic welcomed the UK's commitment to continue to ensure that EU citizens can register as lawful residents in the UK, so that they can enjoy their rights granted by the Withdrawal Agreement.

"He confirmed that the commission will support member states in making sure that UK nationals in the EU will be in a position to exercise their rights under the Withdrawal Agreement, and will continue to monitor that this is done correctly.

"The parties agreed on the importance for the UK to set out its plans over the coming months with regard to the implementation of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The commission committed to working with the UK to implement the protocol.

"There is an urgent need to present a detailed timetable and proceed with the necessary measures, such as preparing for the introduction of customs procedures for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and ensuring that all necessary sanitary and phytosanitary controls as well as other regulatory checks can be carried out in respect of goods entering Northern Ireland from outside the EU."

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