UK says it won't extend EU talks despite virus upheaval

LONDON – The British government insisted Monday that it won’t extend the deadline for striking a post-Brexit deal with the European Union, despite the upheaval caused by the coronavirus.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said “it is still entirely possible” to seal an agreement by the Dec. 31 deadline.

The EU is considerably more pessimistic. Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the 27-nation bloc, called a round of negotiations last week “disappointing” and accused the U.K. of refusing to “engage seriously” on fundamental issues.

Britain officially left the 27-nation bloc on Jan. 31, but remains within the EU’s economic and regulatory orbit until the end of the year. The two sides have until then to work out a new relationship covering trade, security and a host of other issues -- or face a chaotic split that would be economically disruptive for both sides, but especially for the U.K.

The coronavirus pandemic has scuttled face-to-face talks, meaning the two sides have had to negotiate by video conference, while also coping with the health, economic and social crisis triggered by the disease. Barnier and British negotiator David Frost fell sick with COVID-19, though both have recovered. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent several days in intensive care battling the virus.

Under the terms of the U.K.-EU divorce agreement, the transition period can be extended for two more years. But Britain’s Conservative government is adamant it won't use that lifeline.

Two more rounds of negotiations are scheduled for mid-May and early June, before a high-level summit that will decide whether there is a chance of success by the end of the year.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said Monday that “there will need to be political movement on the EU side to move negotiations forward.”

Gove told Parliament's Brexit committee that the coronavirus crisis might “concentrate the minds of EU negotiators, reinforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.”

He said he thought the odds of an agreement were “definitely better than two-to-one.”