BRUSSELS – Michel Barnier, the European Union's chief negotiator for the bloc's future relationship with Britain after Brexit, has been infected with the new coronavirus.
The 69-year-old Barnier said in a Twitter video message Thursday that he is doing well and is in good spirits, while the EU's executive arm said negotiations with British officials can continue.
"I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team," Barnier said from his home, where he has been confined. “For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together.”
Barnier's announcement prompted a series of good wishes messages, including from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said von der Leyen will be tested following Barnier's positive result. Barnier and the EU chief last met two weeks ago. So far she has not shown any symptom of illness. Michel's press service said he is well, too, but will “telework at home for another two days" as a matter of precaution after meeting with Barnier 12 days ago.
Even before Barnier's tweet, the second round of post-Brexit trade negotiations that was due to take place in London this week had already been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. London is the epicenter of Britain's virus infections.
The pandemic has scuttled face-to-face negotiations between the two sides and has increased speculation that the U.K. government will have to extend its self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to strike a deal with the bloc. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is refusing to discuss that idea, at least in public. On Wednesday he said the Dec. 31 date was enshrined in British law, and “I have no intention of changing it.”
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said “we send Michel Barnier our best wishes.” He would not comment on whether the transition period could be extended beyond the end of 2020.
“We’ve been in close conversation with the EU about looking at ways to continue progressing the negotiations, and I believe both sides have shared their texts” of potential agreements, Slack said.
The coronavirus pandemic has infected 219,000 people around the world and killed more than 8,900. About 84,000 have recovered. Aside from the elderly and the sick, most people only have mild or moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough.
Negotiating teams from both sides have looked at alternative ways of continuing the negotiations during the outbreak, including by video conferencing. Mamer said on Thursday talks can continue, insisting that the two sides remain in contact remotely.
Although 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.
Johnson has said he wants a comprehensive trade deal completed this year. The Conservative leader said he 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-time extension to the transition for up two years.
The coronavirus outbreak, though, has raised questions as to whether a Brexit trade deal can now be completed in time, given the increasingly onerous restrictions on travel and work being put in place as a result of the outbreak.
Opposition lawmakers from the Labour Party have said the 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.
Jill Lawless in London contributed.
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