EU Lawmakers Pressure UK to Extend Brexit Transition Due to Coronavirus

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (R) and the British Prime Minister's Europe adviser David Frost speak at start of the first round of post-Brexit trade deal talks between the EU and the United Kingdom, in Brussels on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Olivier HOSLET / POOL / AFP) …
OLIVIER HOSLET/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The European Parliament’s largest party grouping is pressuring the UK to extend the Brexit transition period because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK left the EU on January 31st, 2020, but remains in a transition period until December 31st, 2020. During this time, the UK abides by the bloc’s rules on issues such as trade and free movement whilst London and Brussels negotiate a future deal. While the EU permits for the transition to be extended for up to two years, the British Parliament passed the Brexit bill earlier this year which enshrines the exit date in law. If a deal is not struck, then the two parties will trade on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms.

With both the UK and EU under lockdown during the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, in-person Brexit talks have been put on hold. However, both parties have been able to hold meetings via telephone, with the first meeting of the UK-EU joint committee between Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič taking place at distance on Monday, which both sides described as “constructive”.

The European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the European Parliament which represents the parties of Angela Merkel and Leo Varadkar, called for the transition period to be extended.

Luxembourger MEP Christophe Hansen of the EPP, who sits in the parliament’s trade committee, said in comments reported by the BBC: “Under these extraordinary circumstances, I cannot see how the UK government would choose to expose itself to the double whammy of the coronavirus and the exit from the EU single market, which will inevitably add to the disruption, deal or no deal.

“I can only hope that common sense and substance will prevail over ideology. An extension of the transition period is the only responsible thing to do.”

While the German MEP David McAllister, chairman of the EP’s Brexit group, said: “The coronavirus pandemic complicates the already very ambitious schedule.”

Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy has also likewise said the Brexit transition period “must” be extended because of coronavirus.

Reuters reports that EU diplomats are expecting the request to come in May or June.

The Times reported “senior officials” claiming that Boris Johnson will have no alternative but to extend if face-to-face talks cannot be held before the summer. Tory Brexiteer and chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) Mark Francois, however, insists the prime minister should not give in to pressure, saying: “With the focus quite rightly on fighting Covid-19 the last thing we need now is a distraction of reopening old battles over Brexit.”

In the past few weeks, Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Dominic Raab have asserted that the UK’s exit from the EU’s institutions will not be further delayed. Responding to the EPP’s statement, a government spokesman said: “The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law, which the prime minister has made clear he has no intention of changing.”

While Prime Minister Johnson’s spokesman told reporters: “We have shared legal texts and they are the subject of informal discussions between ourselves and the EU commission… I would expect those sorts of conversations to be carrying on this week.”

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