LONDON — Even as a global pandemic sweeps the planet, Britain remains stubborn.
Despite no indication trade negotiations with the EU will begin again soon, Boris Johnson insists the transition period designed to smooth the U.K.’s exit from the bloc will end as planned in December this year. He told MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday the issue had “been legislated for,” referring to the law passed by parliament in January that bans the government from requesting an extension.
The second round of negotiations was meant to begin Wednesday, but EU officials who were bound for London canceled their travel because of the coronavirus, and hopes of conducting talks by videoconference never materialized.
Talks were dealt a fresh blow when chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier announced Thursday he had tested positive for coronavirus. The former French Cabinet minister tweeted that he was “in good spirits” but that he was “following all the necessary instructions, as is my team.” That means isolation. One senior EU ambassador said, “Barnier has now corona thus I think the Brexit negotiations are shut down anyhow.”
Some in the U.K. government remain hopeful. The two sides have discussed whether the previous negotiating timetable could be scrapped in favor of continuous, rolling negotiations, which could be squeezed into a shorter timeframe. Bits of work continue behind the scenes, and there has been some contact between chief U.K. negotiator David Frost and EU deputy Clara Martínez Alberola.
Some pro-Brexit Conservative figures argue Britain should press on with its threats of no deal while all sides are weakened.
“There may well be a short-term blip in those negotiations but not to the extent that will cause a slippage in the program,” one senior government figure said.