Brexit talks stalled as UK and EU yet to agree videoconferencing timetable

Jon Stone
Michel Barnier gives a press conference yesterday reporting on the first round of negotiations: AFP/Getty

Brexit trade talks have stalled, with negotiators yet to agree a timetable for video-conferencing to replace meetings disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the EU Commission's negotiating team said on Tuesday that chief negotiator Michel Barnier would talk to his UK counterpart David Frost next week "to try and reach agreement on a timetable for the next steps in order to move the negotiations forward".

Discussions last week and this week have been limited to "technical" contact between the two sides, the spokesperson said – with no real negotiation taking place despite major distances between both sides.

The news of stalled talks come as a new poll shows strong public support for extending the transition period, during which the UK stays tied to EU rules and keeps the benefits of membership.

Once the transition period ends, currently due at the end of the year, the UK will leave with whatever trade deal it has with the bloc – and crash out on economically damaging World Trade Organisation terms if it has none.

Boris Johnson's administration has long said it will not extend the period for any reason, and has written the policy into law.

But a new survey, carried out by pollsters JL Partners for WPI Strategy, found that just 19 per cent of people support the government's strategy of severing ties with the EU at the end of 2020 no matter what.

By contrast 38 per cent British people think the Government should extend the UK’s transition period indefinitely for however long it takes until the coronavirus outbreak is over.

A total of 67 per cent of voters think the transition should be extended in some form, with others endorsing six months to a year as possible timescales.

A European Commission spokesperson on Tuesday afternoon sent their best wishes to Boris Johnson, who is in intensive care with a Covid-19 infection.

"On behalf of the president and the whole college we wish the British prime minister Boris Johnson a speedy recovery," they said.

British negotiator David Frost (right) arrives at the European Commission. Negotiators have been unable to meet during the pandemic (Reuters)

Both David Frost and Michel Barnier have also previously had to self-isolate with Covid-19 symptoms.

Two rounds of talks due to take place have now been postponed – one originally scheduled to take place in London and one in Brussels. It is understood that the UK believes videolink talks are possible but the EU side is more sceptical, arguing that officials would still have to gather together on one side and risk infection.

The face-to-face meetings that took place in Brussels before the pandemic involved hundreds of officials. Both sides have traded legal text for proposed free trade agreements, but are at odds on governance, the shape of the agreement, fisheries, and the extent to which the UK will stay aligned with EU rules.

Explaining the state of negotiations, a spokesperson for the EU Commission's negotiating team said: "As for the negotiations proper last week there were technical contacts between the two teams to clarify the relevant legal text.

"Yesterday the deputy head of the taskforce spoke to David Frost, the lead negotiator from the UK in order to take stock on the work that has been done.

"Obviously we will remain in contact with the UK this week. I will also confirm that next week Michel Barnier will speak to David Frost in order to try and reach agreement on a timetable for the next steps in order to move the negotiations forward."

The spokesperson added: "Awaiting that meeting I can say nothing else at this stage."

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