DUBLIN (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic has made an already difficult timeline for a British-European Union trade deal “virtually impossible”, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said, cautioning that he did wish to raise expectations of London seeking more time.
Tortuous Brexit talks, now focused on setting new trading terms from 2021 when London’s status-quo transition period after Brexit ends, quickly hit an impasse when they resumed last month, according to EU diplomats and officials.
Coveney, who played a key role in Britain’s EU withdrawal talks due to the border Ireland shares with British-run Northern Ireland, said progress so far this year has been much slower than the EU had hoped before the resumption of talks next week.
“Given the complexity of what we’re trying to deal with here and the added complications, and there are many, as a result COVID-19, it surely makes sense for us to seek a bit more time,” Coveney told an online conference on Friday.
“I think anybody looking at this from the outside could only conclude it makes sense to look for more time, but the British government has decided that’s not what they want. I wouldn’t be raising expectations around the British government agreeing to seeking more time.”
Coveney said if the EU are to have any of chance of changing British minds, they have to be careful as to how they do that. Any request would recognise that “COVID-19 has made what is already a very, very difficult timeline to get agreement virtually impossible,” he added.
While the EU says only a relatively modest free trade agreement is possible before the end of the year, it attaches conditions to it – including rigid guarantees of fair competition – that have been rejected by Britain.
Coveney said the two rounds of talks to date have “really gotten nowhere” because of those differences. At a bare minimum, he said, the EU needs an agreement and understanding around the so-called level playing field issues or “whatever we decide to call them politically”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who presided over Britain’s exit from the EU on Jan. 31, has ruled out seeking an extension of the transition period beyond Dec. 31. Until then, Britain remains part of the EU’s single market and customs union.
“Talking about the UK being fully autonomous, protecting sovereignty, I get that language, that is what has driven Brexit in many ways. Breaking free from the European Union, not being a rule taker, that’s fine from a political narrative perspective,” he said.
“But you can’t have quota-free, tariff-free trade unless there is a level playing field. The EU can just never facilitate that and why would they…This is essentially the crux of the issue and if we can’t resolve it, there isn’t going to be a deal.”
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