This week sees the UK resume stalled negotiations with the EU over the terms of its withdrawal, including critical trade deals, which are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, with the tight timetable raising fears of a potential ‘hard Brexit’
The UK and the EU are currently in a transitional period during which the UK is aligned with EU rules, which include trading arrangements and free movement of people, after the UK formally left the EU on 31 January.
This transitional period is set to last until 31 December 2020, and if the UK does not negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU when the transition ends, it will revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms by default.
Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement the transitional period may be extended by mutual agreement, by up to two years, if the UK requests an extension before 30 June this year.
Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart David Frost held a meeting via videoconference last week, after the planned face-to-face meetings for the second round of negotiations in mid-March were cancelled as the pandemic took hold.
The two sides took stock of the technical work that has taken place since the first negotiating round on the basis of the legal texts exchanged by both sides.
While this work has been useful to identify all major areas of divergence and convergence, the two sides agreed on the need to organise further negotiating rounds in order to make real, tangible progress in the negotiations by June.
Given the ongoing coronavirus crisis, these negotiating rounds will take place via videoconference. There will be three rounds, each lasting a full week. The first started on 20 April and the other two are week commencing 11 May and week commencing 1 June.
There will then be a high level meeting in June to take stock of the progress made.
Barnier and Frost also discussed the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, which has only been the subject of one joint committee meeting so far, at the end of March.
In a statement, the two sides said they agreed that ‘the proper and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement was a key priority for both sides and noted that the specialised committees provided for by the agreement, including on the protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland and on citizens' rights, would meet soon.’
Last week the prime minister’s spokesperson said the government would not ask to extend the transition period and would reject any overtures by the EU, though none have yet arrived.
The spokesperson said: ‘The government was elected on a manifesto which made clear the transition period would end on 31 December 2020. That is now enshrined in primary legislation and it remains our policy.’
However, given the disruption caused by Covid-19 and the lack of progress on trade deals, the Scottish government is urging the UK government to request the maximum two-year extension to the Brexit transition period.
Scotland’s constitution secretary, Michael Russell, has called for an urgent meeting to be held by videoconference with all four UK nations on the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations), which has not met in any form since January.
Russell said: ‘The benefits of co-ordinated European action have never been clearer.
‘An extended transition will keep the UK as close as possible to the EU and provide an opportunity to re-think the future relationship.
‘The UK government is pressing ahead with negotiations without properly involving the Scottish government, or taking account of our views.
‘The Scottish economy cannot afford the double hit of Covid-19 and the growing likelihood of a “no deal”, or at best a hard Brexit deal, in less than nine months’ time.’
Agenda of the second round of UK-EU Future Relationship negotiations: 20-24 April 2020 is here.