There have been calls from some quarters to extend the Brexit transition period because of the coronavirus pandemic. Following the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January, the rest of 2020 is set to be a transition period, giving both sides time to implement the withdrawal agreement and negotiate the terms of their future relationship. The UK was also planning to launch negotiations on new trade deals with countries outside the EU.

This article explores how the focus of governments on dealing with Covid-19 has affected the progress of the UK-EU future relationship negotiations and implementation of the withdrawal agreement. A follow-up post will look at how the UK is affected during the transition period by the EU’s response to coronavirus, what is happening with the UK’s plans to negotiate trade deals with non-EU countries, and what this means for Parliament.

What is the transition period?

Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, the UK’s departure from the EU is followed by a transition period that is due to run until 31 December 2020. The Government, particularly during Theresa May’s premiership, has also used the term ‘implementation period’. Although the UK is no longer a member of the EU, most EU law will continue to apply during this time. The idea is this creates a standstill during which the UK and the EU can negotiate the terms of their future relationship.

For a new agreement to be ready to come into force at the end of this period, it must be ratified by the end of this year. The EU has suggested that negotiations need to be completed by October to leave enough time for ratification. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, have both expressed the view that the timetable is challenging.

The withdrawal agreement itself allows for the transition period to be extended for one or two years. However, this can only happen if the UK and the EU decide before 1 July 2020 that there should be an extension.

The Government’s policy is not to extend the transition period. The Conservative Party ran on a manifesto commitment in the 2019 general election not to extend the transition period beyond December 2020. The Government used the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to legislate to prohibit UK ministers from agreeing to an extension. The Government said in February that this left “a limited, but sufficient, time for the UK and EU to reach agreement”. If there is no future relationship deal in place by the end of the transition period, then from January 2021, the UK and the EU would trade with each other on WTO terms.

Future relationship negotiations

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the running of the future relationship negotiations. The second round of face-to-face talks was scheduled to take place in London on 18–20 March. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, this did not happen as planned. The Government said it was in contact with the European Commission to “consider alternative ways to continue discussions, including looking at the possibility of video-conferencing or conference calls, and exploring flexibility in the structure in the coming weeks”.

Key participants in the talks have been affected by coronavirus. Michel Barnier announced on 19 March that he had tested positive for Covid-19. The following day, Downing Street said David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, was self-isolating after experiencing possible symptoms.

However, not all progress has stalled. The UK and the EU exchanged draft legal texts with each other on 18 March. According to the Financial Times, informal discussions are ongoing, but continuing the negotiations by video-conferencing has not been possible. This is reportedly because of the number of participants involved, and security concerns about the technology. It is not clear how the talks will progress over future weeks. A further round of face-to-face talks was due to take place in Brussels from 6–8 April.

What effect will this have?

The unexpected need for governments across Europe to focus on responding to the pandemic may have an impact on their capacity to prepare for the post-transition period. The Institute for Government suggested back in mid-March that Boris Johnson might be forced to choose whether to focus his “prime ministerial bandwidth” on Brexit or on tackling the coronavirus. Since then, Mr Johnson has been admitted to hospital with Covid-19, which may further affect the amount of time he can devote to Brexit transition issues, at least in the short term.

Phil Hogan, the EU trade commissioner, said that in every EU member state, civil servants were busy dealing with the Covid-19 situation. He explained there were not enough people “who are able to apply themselves to these intensive negotiations that are required to be concluded in such a short space of time”. He believed that a comprehensive trade deal could not be concluded in time for a 31 December deadline.

In the UK, Bloomberg has reported that UK civil servants have cancelled most Brexit-related meetings with business representatives as they have been pulled away to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Extending the transition?

In the face of pressures on the negotiating process, there have been several calls for the transition period to be extended. The Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the European People’s Party (the largest grouping of MEPs in the European Parliament) have all called for the end of the transition to be delayed. Keir Starmer, the incoming Labour leader, said the Government “should extend if it’s necessary to do so”.

The Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the British International Freight Association have also all called for an extension. They argue that the logistics industry cannot prepare for new trading arrangements with the EU while dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, Mark Francois, chair of the European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs, has cautioned against extending the transition period, suggesting that “reopening old battles over Brexit” could distract efforts from fighting Covid-19.

The Government has maintained that it will not ask for or agree to an extension. It said on 13 March: “The transition period ends on 31 December 2020. This is enshrined in UK law. Our preparations for the end of the transition period continue as normal and remain a priority.” It repeated this position on 25 March.

Implementing the withdrawal agreement

The transition period was also intended to provide time to implement aspects of the withdrawal agreement. The withdrawal agreement established a joint committee to oversee the way the UK and the EU implement, apply and interpret the withdrawal agreement. This is separate from the negotiations on the future relationship. The first meeting of the joint committee took place on 30 March, jointly chaired by Michael Gove, minister for the Cabinet Office, and Maroš Šefčovič, vice president of the European Commission. It was held by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Citizens’ rights

One strand of the joint committee’s work is overseeing the implementation of the withdrawal agreement’s provisions on citizens’ rights. The 3 Million and British in Europe—campaign groups that represent EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU respectively—have expressed concerns that the coronavirus pandemic may delay this.

The UK is implementing the citizens’ rights provisions through the EU Settlement Scheme. Under the scheme, EU citizens living in the UK before the end of the transition period have until 30 June 2021 to apply for settled status or pre-settled status to allow them to remain in the UK legally.

The Government has said it is currently taking longer than usual to process applications because of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Home Office has reportedly suspended its telephone helpline, stopped accepting ID documents by post and closed some offices that help vulnerable people with applications. Campaigners have expressed concerns about the impact on applications from vulnerable people and those without an online presence.

In response to a parliamentary question about extending the application deadline because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Home Office said there are still nearly 15 months to go. It maintained the scheme has been performing well.

Northern Ireland

Another strand of the joint committee’s work is overseeing implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. After the joint committee’s first meeting, the European Commission called on the UK to set out its plans on this. It said there was an “urgent need” to present a detailed timetable and continue with measures to introduce customs procedures, sanitary and phytosanitary controls, and regulatory checks.

The Institute for Government has described the scale of the task in implementing the citizens’ rights provisions and Northern Ireland protocol as “huge”. In its view, the coronavirus outbreak has “cast doubts on whether everything can be done by the current deadline of 31 December 2020”.

Cover image by Martin Sanchez from Unsplash.