EU and UK call off face-to-face trade talks because of virus

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Anti Brexit campaigners hold placards including comments on the outbreak of coronavirus as they protest outside Parliament in London, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. A British government minister Nadine Dorries, who is a junior Heath minster has tested positive for the coronavirus and is self isolating. Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will announce the first budget since Britain left the European Union.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON – European Union negotiators will not travel to London next week for the second round of post-Brexit trade talks with the U.K. because of the coronavirus outbreak that is tightening its grip across Europe.

In a joint statement Thursday, negotiating teams from both sides said they were looking at "alternative ways" of continuing the negotiations, including by video conferencing.

"Given the latest COVID-19 developments, U.K. and EU negotiators have today jointly decided not to hold next week's round of negotiations in London, in the form originally scheduled," they said.

"Both sides are currently exploring alternative ways to continue discussions, including if possible the use of video conferences."

While Britain left the political institutions of the EU on Jan. 31, it remains part of the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants a comprehensive trade deal completed this year and won’t seek an extension to the country’s current transition period, insisting that 11 months is more than enough time to secure a wide-ranging deal with the EU for goods and services. Under the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, the country can request a one-off extension to the transition for up two years.

The coronavirus outbreak, though, has raised questions as to whether a deal can now be completed in time, given the increasingly onerous restrictions on an array of fronts that are being put in place as a result of the outbreak.

Opposition lawmakers from the Labour Party have said that Johnson should ask for an extension given how an already tight timetable has been made even tighter by the virus.

The talks began earlier this month in Brussels, and are due to alternate between the EU’s headquarters and London.