London insists it won’t request an extension to EU-UK trade talks despite the EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier announcing he has contracted COVID-19.
The UK government is also doubling down on its threat to walk away at the end of June if sufficient progress hasn’t been made in EU-UK trade talks.
London issued a statement today saying they wish Michel Barnier a “speedy recovery” but says it intends to conclude talks on a future relationship by the end of the year regardless of the global pandemic.
And a UK government source has confirmed to Euronews that they still intend to walk away from negotiations if they feel sufficient or meaningful progress hasn’t been made by June.
"We haven’t defined what sufficient progress looks like but if we can’t make progress in areas that we think we should be able to then how will we get anywhere on more difficult areas," the source said.
Alternative arrangements to meeting face-to-face are being sourced by the UK such as the use technology and teleconferencing to support negotiations.
The UK is also trying to change the structure of the talks to make it easier to do remotely.
“We remain in contact with the European Commission to explore alternative ways to continue discussions in light of coronavirus," a British government statement read.
“The previous structure of the negotiations is likely to change so we are exploring flexibility in the structure.
“We will not be extending the transition period.”
"We’ve only missed a few hours of talks so far so let’s see where we get to with smaller numbers of negotiators and technical solutions," said the UK source.
But the EU is unconvinced at the practicality of working through complex, detailed negotiations in the midst of a global emergency using telecoms or other systems.
Particularly given that it is likely other members of either team could fall ill, or be transferred to other departments to assist with the crisis.
“Let’s see what happens, but I think they are going to have to extend," said one EU Brexit source.
"It definitely won't be the same as sitting across the table, and even if there was an agreement I can't see British business being able to handle the change in a very short time period," said another EU Brexit source.
"Any decision to extend, inevitable or not will be politically sensitive for them so if/when it comes it will have to be managed and explained very carefully by them and I expect they'll try to make some progress on the negotiations first," the source told Euronews.
Meanwhile the talks are facing substantial obstacles aside from the coronavirus crisis.
Both sides exchanged the legal texts of their negotiating directives on Wednesday and are said to remain deeply divided.
A UK government source say Europe’s position in several areas is “fundamentally incompatible” to Britain’s ambitions over Brexit.
The EU legal directive was approved by member states in the General Affairs Council on February 25 and is in line with the Political Declaration that was agreed between the EU and the UK last October.
Europe’s insistence that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has a role as an arbiter of disputes, and Brussels definition of fair and free competition are still at odds with the UK’s position.
‘It’s like the UK demanding UK courts decisions are implemented by the EU – that’s not fair either is it," said the UK source of the proposed role of the ECJ.
Demands by Brussels for the UK to continue a form of alignment or "harmony" on regulations including level playing field provisions, as well fisheries are other key battlegrounds for both sides.
The EU wants the future relationship between the two sides to be an all-encompassing agreement and market access commensurate to how integrated the sides are.
The UK wants the future relationship to include a Free Trade Agreement and annexes for other areas such as aviation, nuclear and fisheries.
Fisheries is also an area of great dispute.
EU member states are holding out for a continuation of the status quo with the same access to the UK’s bountiful waters.
The UK – which sees fisheries as one of the key planks to the success of Brexit – wants fisheries to be decided separately and says access for EU trawlers will have to be negotiated on a yearly basis.