BRUSSELS (Reuters) – It was always going to be a challenge for Britain and the European Union to meet an end-of-year deadline to agree on their post-Brexit relationship.
But the coronavirus has just made it even harder, and calls for an extension to the deadline are gaining traction in mainland Europe as parts of the continent go into lockdown.
Talks planned for this week have been postponed because of the outbreak, and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Thursday he has the COVID-19 respiratory illness that the coronavirus can cause.
“I tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday,” Barnier said in a video message from his home in France where he is now confined. He also issued a rallying cry for fellow Europeans to “win this collective battle, this war, against the virus.”
Barnier last met British Brexit negotiator David Frost in person in the first week of March, during the first round of talks after Britain formally left the EU on Jan. 31.
Britain is now in a transition period where EU rules on trade, travel and business continue to apply until Jan. 1 next year. The talks with the EU are meant to reach agreement on subjects from trade to security cooperation EU by then.
But since the last talks, the coronavirus outbreak has worsened in Europe and national economies have been hit as the death toll rose and countries went into lockdown.
EU diplomats and officials say increasingly in private that they do not see how agreement can be reached by the end of this year. But governments are reluctant to say this in public for fear of being accused of using it as a negotiating tactic to put pressure on Britain to compromise.