British PM pressed to seek extension in trade talks with EU

A woman wearing a face mask carting away toilet paper at a supermarket in London last Saturday. Consumers, worried about shortages during the pandemic, have started stockpiling household products.
A woman wearing a face mask carting away toilet paper at a supermarket in London last Saturday. Consumers, worried about shortages during the pandemic, have started stockpiling household products.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Analysts say this will let both sides focus on dealing with coronavirus

LONDON • As leaders on both sides of the English Channel batten down the hatches for the coronavirus, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is coming under rising pressure to ask the European Union for an extension in the negotiations to reach a trade agreement - in effect, putting off the next stage of Brexit until the virus exits.

Under the terms of its withdrawal agreement with the bloc, Britain legally left the EU on Jan 31, and is in a transition period that preserves most of the old relationship. It has until Dec 31 to strike a new deal.

European officials, and many in Britain, have said that the timetable was hopelessly compressed. Now, with face-to-face negotiations on hold, analysts said Mr Johnson should invoke his right to request an extension so that governments on both sides can concentrate on managing the response to the virus and mitigating the economic shock that is almost certain to follow it.

"It's going to be awfully difficult for the government to focus on this while dealing with the virus and maybe a financial crisis, too," said Mr David Henig, a former British trade negotiator. "We are already being overtaken by events, and I think that pressure is going to start to become pretty intense."

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said last Friday that Britain had no plans to seek an extension and that there were ways to hold negotiations even during the peak of the outbreak. Most of the substantive talks are not expected until the autumn anyway, and in the meantime, officials are discussing options for video conferencing links.

The opening round of negotiations took place in Brussels this month and served mainly to underscore the deep differences between the two sides. Negotiators have called off a plan to meet in person in London this week.

Mr Johnson has made getting Brexit done a fulcrum of his agenda. He has brushed aside those who say that hashing out a comprehensive agreement with Britain's largest trading partner in 10 months is not feasible under the best of circumstances, let alone during a dire public health emergency.

But the rapid spread of the virus is already forcing the British government to reconsider its restrained response in other respects.

After declining to follow other European countries in banning large public gatherings or closing schools, Britain is now considering both steps. Mr Johnson had already postponed local elections, scheduled for May, until next year.

"In a rational world, the UK would ask for an extension in June even if coronavirus wasn't happening," said Mr John Springford, the deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think-tank. "The pandemic makes it even more pressing," he said, "because the British state will not have the personnel needed to enact the sweeping changes necessary to leave the single market."

 
 
 
 

Britain must design and implement new Customs and immigration systems; draft regulations on transportation, aviation and food safety; and begin negotiating individual trade deals with the United States and many other countries. Analysts estimate that the additional workload from Brexit has necessitated adding 27,500 government jobs.

In January, when few leaders in the West had begun focusing on the coronavirus, the president of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, urged Mr Johnson to consider requesting an extension. Under the terms of the agreement, he must decide whether to do so by June.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2020, with the headline 'British PM pressed to seek extension in trade talks with EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe