BRUSSELS – Slowed by the coronavirus pandemic and whipped up by a U.K.-imposed deadline, talks between the European Union and Britain on their future relationship in the wake of Brexit are struggling to make significant progress.
Reduced to negotiating sessions on video because of travel restrictions, the two sides are in a standoff on several key issues, ranging from fishing rights to the authority of high courts in future disputes.
A third week-long negotiation session is drawing to a close on Friday, but so far, just over 100 days after the U.K.'s official exit from the EU, fundamental gaps are still yawning.
“We have major points of divergence still," said David McAllister, a German EU parliamentarian who is the legislature's top official on the bilateral relations.
The U.K. position also remained uncompromising. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, insisted that “the EU has asked for far more from the U.K” than from other countries the bloc has trade deals with. Slack said the British Cabinet had agreed that the U.K. would not give in to demands “to give up our rights as an independent state.”
In little over a month, the EU leaders and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson are scheduled to have a summit, likely on video, to take stock of the talks' progress.
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 U.K.-EU divorce agreement allows for the deadline to be extended by two years, but Johnson's government insists it will not lengthen the transition period beyond Dec. 31.
Most trade deals take years to negotiate, so finishing something as fundamental as this in 11 months would be a Herculean task at the best of times. Many politicians, experts and diplomats believe it is impossible during a pandemic that has focused governments' resources on preserving public health and averting economic collapse.
“We are under enormous time pressure and the U.K, government is determined not to ask for an extension of the transition period," McAllister — the German EU parliamentarian — said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We need to see tangible progress in the next weeks."
Any deal with the U.K. needs to be approved by the EU legislature, and McAllister said that for everything to be ratified by Dec 31, would mean that “the negotiations would have to be concluded (by) the end of October, beginning of November. So we're really running out of time."
If no deal on their future relationship is agreed by then, a cliff-edge economic departure would loom again for Britain, with uncertainly over customs rules, airline slots, financial regulation and other standards.
Both sides are already facing a serious recession because of the pandemic and a chaotic split on Dec. 31 wouldn't help.
Meanwhile, other issues are muddying the waters even more.
The EU has taken the first step in legal proceedings against the U.K. over what it sees as infringements of the free movement rights of its citizens in Britain as guaranteed by the Brexit withdrawal agreement and during the transition period.
Slack said the U.K. would "look at what the EU has to say and we will respond in due course.”
The EU also accuses the U.K. of failing to take action to ensure that trade will continue to be seamless on the island of Ireland, home to both an EU member state and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland, once the transition ends.
“We need a credible approach of the U.K.," said McAllister.
Lawless reported from London