LONDON — The coronavirus pandemic will “concentrate the minds” of the EU’s Brexit negotiators and help secure a trade deal by the end of the year, U.K. Cabinet minister Michael Gove said Monday.
Gove, who leads preparations for a no-deal end to the Brexit transition period, said it is “entirely possible” negotiations on the EU-U.K.’s future relationship will conclude by December 31.
The second round of negotiations about Britain’s relationship with the EU ended Friday with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier describing progress as “disappointing” and accusing U.K. negotiators of refusing to engage on the most important issues for the EU.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Brexit committee, Gove said: “I think the COVID crisis, in some respects, should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators, reinforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.”
“It is undeniable that a fair-minded observer looking at the situation would say that there are difficult challenges ahead for individual member states and the EU itself. However, the professionalism of the [European] Commission negotiating team and their focus on trying to make progress has not, so far as I can see, been affected.”
An extension to the Brexit transition — repeatedly ruled out by Britain — would postpone a deal and would require the U.K. to pay money into the EU’s next budget, Gove said.
Gove spoke hours after the prime minister’s official spokesman called for “political movement on the EU side” to move negotiations forward, particularly on the so-called level playing field, designed to ensure the U.K. does not diverge from EU rules in a way that gives the country a competitive advantage, and fisheries — two of the four sticking points, together with governance and criminal justice cooperation. Gove said the U.K. won’t budge on either issue.
An extension to the Brexit transition — repeatedly ruled out by Britain — would postpone a deal and would require the U.K. to pay money into the EU’s next budget, Gove said. However, he refused to say whether the U.K. is still planning to walk away from the negotiations if it had not made sufficient progress toward a deal by the end of June.
“We are not asking for anything bespoke or new or tailor-made. We are asking simply for a series of off-the-peg arrangements which replicate what the EU has with other countries,” Gove said.
Gove told MPs the U.K. government has shared draft legal texts with the EU negotiating team on the free-trade agreement it seeks, security cooperation and a number of other areas, and hopes to put forward a document on fisheries as soon as it is clear that the EU has moved from its position of imposing the current status quo on fishing quotas on the U.K.
These draft texts will be published in the coming weeks, Gove said. The EU “made a virtue out of a necessity” when it published its own texts, since it wanted to avoid leaks, he added.
The government has discussed with industry the creation of a customs training academy to provide skills for the approximately 50,000 customs agents needed to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol, Gove said. But he could not provide a figure on how many of these customs agents have already been recruited.
However, the U.K. continues to resist pressure from the EU to set up a permanent office in Belfast to oversee the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, in particular around custom checks. Gove said U.K. officials will carry out checks if they are ever required, and “there’s no need” for a “mini embassy in Belfast for that to happen.”
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.