BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union expects Britain to seek an extension of its post-Brexit transition period beyond the end of the year, diplomats and officials said on Monday, as negotiations on trade have ground to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Europe has gone into a deep lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of the disease, with more than 330,000 infections reported on the continent and nearly 21,000 deaths.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his health minister have both tested positive for the virus and the prime minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings - one of the masterminds behind Britain’s departure from the EU earlier this year - was self-isolating with symptoms.
“The coronavirus pandemic complicates the already very ambitious schedule,” said David McAllister, a conservative German EU lawmaker who chairs the European Parliament’s Brexit group.
“The EU has always been open to extending the transition period. The ball is now clearly in the British court ... So far, the UK government has constantly rejected such an option. Under the current circumstances, London should carefully re-examine a prolongation.”
London and the EU have been seeking to agree a new trade pact by the end of the year to kick in from 2021, even though the bloc has long said that such a timeframe was extremely short to agree rules on everything from trade to security to fisheries.
EU diplomats said on Monday they expected a request from London in May or June.
Johnson has ruled out delaying the date when Brexit would finally take effect following Britain’s 2016 vote to leave, and said London was also ready to withdraw from its current cooperation accords at end-year without a new deal.
His spokesman repeated on Monday the deadline for the transition ended on Dec. 31 and “this is enshrined in law”.
“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,” he told reporters.
“The structure of the negotiations has changed to reflect the current situation with regard to coronavirus, so there are more continuous discussions taking place rather than the set rounds which were originally envisaged.”
Sources on both sides of the English Channel said tackling the pandemic was sapping political energy and government resources to the detriment of Brexit negotiations.
Several British civil service sources told Reuters many officials previously focusing on the Brexit talks have been shifted to teams dealing with the outbreak.
In Brussels, diplomats and officials said there have been no formal negotiations since the sides exchanged their drafts of a new trade agreement in mid-March, though some contacts between officials were taking place to exchange views on the documents.
“It’s increasingly obvious the transition period will have to be extended,” said an EU diplomat. “It’s a matter of political momentum - when things get so bad in Britain that Johnson can do a U-turn and say he is prioritising saving lives and hence delays Brexit.”
Both sides would have to agree by the end of June on the extra time of one or two years. In Britain, parliament has passed laws ruling that out.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Elizabeth Piper and Michael Holden; Editing by Alex Richardson and Giles Elgood