Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK has entered a transition period where it will continue to follow EU rules until 31 December 2020, by which time both sides say they hope to have agreed a trade deal.
But many MEPs now say that as the Coronavirus pandemic has slammed the brakes firmly on the Brexit negotiations, this deadline is unlikely to be met.
Kris Peeters, a Belgian EPP member, has authored a report on the issue for Parliament. The report was discussed at a specially-convened meeting of the internal market committee in Brussels last week.
Presenting his report to the committee, Peeters said, “We still want a deal with the UK that respects the EU’s single market and guarantees a level playing field. But no negotiations have been possible of late. You do have to question if it is possible to reach a deal by end of this year.”
“Companies are already in a very difficult situation with Coronavirus, but it will be even worse if there is no Brexit deal. We may, therefore, have to ask for another date to finalise the settlement.”
He added, “This is not just in the interest of the EU but also the UK. But if there is to be a delay we must know what it is by May or June.”
In the first round of talks between the UK and the EU, more than 200 officials split into 11 different working groups discussing 11 different policy areas, from the trade in goods to transport to energy to fisheries.
Since the Coronavirus worsened, the two sides considered whether they could replicate this set-up using video conferencing and speaker phones, but both decided it was impossible and the talks are now on hold, along with much of the EU decision-making process.
Christel Schaldemose, a Socialist member, says she supports a delay but believes any such request should come from the European Parliament.
"Companies are already in a very difficult situation with Coronavirus, but it will be even worse if there is no Brexit deal. We may, therefore, have to ask for another date to finalise the settlement" Kris Peeters MEP
“Prolonging things a bit could be an option. But it is up to Boris Johnson and the UK to say if they want this. It is important for us at the end of the day to have a deal though.”
Her comments were echoed by Sandro Gozi, a French RE deputy, who said, “I also support any proposal for a delay because it is now clear that the Coronavirus outbreak has badly affected the Brexit negotiating timetable.”
Anna Cavazzini, a German Greens MEP, said, “I am used to being involved in trade talks and it will be impossible to stick to the (December) deadline.”
“Boris Johnson himself has said it took the EU and Canada seven years to negotiate CETA trade deal but the Brexit talks have been made even more difficult by the Corona crisis.”
Dutch EPP member Toine Manders argued, “We need to focus not just on economics but the emotions of all this: if there is not going to be more support for the EU on what it is doing now there will be more Brexits in the future.”
Christophe Hansen, another EPP deputy, also called for an extension of the transition period beyond its current deadline at the end of this year.
He noted, “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 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" Christophe Hansen MEP
“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”, said Hansen, who is negotiator of the post-Brexit agreement for the committee on international trade.
German member David McAllister, chair of the UK Coordination Group in Parliament, said, “The Coronavirus pandemic complicates the already very ambitious [Brexit] schedule. The EU has always been open to extending the transition period.”
McAllister, who is also the foreign affairs committee chair, added, “The ball is now clearly in the British court. The UK would have to submit an official request. So far, the UK government has constantly rejected such an option. Under the current circumstances, London should carefully re-examine a prolongation.”
Both McAllister and Hansen rejected any attempts to re-open the terms of the current Withdrawal Agreement, with Hansen adding, “The implementation of this is extremely important for us - we would like to see guarantees that the UK will fulfil all its commitments stemming from the Withdrawal Agreement and the Irish Protocol.”
Elsewhere, Polish EPP member Danuta Hubner told this website an extension is “virtually inevitable,” adding, “Coronavirus is making everything more difficult. Among other challenges, it makes the extension of the transition period more likely and reasonable.”
She said a joint decision of both sides is needed before 1 July, adding, “But nobody, and in particular the EU, can force the British government to request an extension.”
"Boris Johnson himself has said it took the EU and Canada seven years to negotiate the CETA trade deal, but the Brexit talks have been made even more difficult by the Corona crisis" Anna Cavazzini MEP
The former EU commissioner added, “It is also true that we have heard often official statements which were targeted to domestic audience for political partisan benefits. My understanding is that not all issues that will have to be negotiated have been delivered to Brussels for negotiations.”
“Taking into account the dramatic times we all live now, should the British government wait until 30 June for a decision? Everybody knows that EU - and its biggest political family has already declared it - will respond positively to the British request.”
She warned, however, “I also have in the back of my head a different scenario: the British Prime Minister will go on negotiating assuming that at the end of the year the EU will accept a future Partnership Agreement with a phasing in period like we practice for new members.”