Shift to online complicates Brexit talks endgame

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Brexit negotiators have claimed for weeks that a deal was virtually within reach. Now the talks have actually gone virtual — after an EU negotiator tested positive for coronavirus — but there’s still no sign of an agreement, the European Commission told EU ambassadors Friday. 

The shift to negotiating by videoconference is just the latest setback in the talks, and while officials said it was more of an annoyance than anything more serious, there is little margin for error given the tight timetable. 

“This is definitely not ideal,” said an EU official closely involved in the talks. “It’s better if one can look each other in the eye or go for a walk through the corridors instead of talking via screens — especially in the end phase of the negotiations.”

At the same time, the official insisted that “this won’t be the thing that makes or breaks these negotiations. It was going to be difficult either way.”

The Commission on Friday briefed EU ambassadors on the state of play of the negotiations, which are already playing overtime.

According to several EU officials and diplomats, the message was similar to the one they’ve been hearing for some time: There is significant progress in a number of areas (and negotiators are even closing in on a legal text), but gaps are only slowly shrinking on the core issues of fisheries, the so-called level playing field — making sure that the U.K. cannot undercut the bloc after it has left — and the governance of the deal.

There is still hope that negotiations can be finalized quickly “once the necessary political decisions in London are taken,” an EU diplomat said.

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