An EU official has claimed the UK could still get an extension to the Brexit transition period even if it does not formally request one.
Speaking to the Independent an EU source close to Brexit trade talks insisted that it was keen to help the UK move towards an extension if it wanted one.
They said: ‘I think the point that we’ve been making is you don’t have to request an extension, you just have to have the agreement of both sides.
‘It sounds silly but nobody has to request one [an extension], we just have to agree jointly and it doesn’t have to be anybody’s fault… I know it’s a nuance.’
But Downing Street remains resistant to the idea, claiming a deal could still be struck by December 31.
It insists negotiation roadblocks like rules around fisheries, the level playing field, the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the UK’s participation in the EU’s crime-fighting agency, Europol, can be overcome, despite Covid-19 efforts sucking up vital government resources to complete talks.
Trade expert Sam Lowe from the pro-EU think tank, the Centre for European Reform, disagreed. He said No 10 was too focused on tackling the virus to properly focus on trade talks.
‘We’re not in a place where we’re even thinking about that [negotiations],’ he told the newspaper.
‘In order to get to a point where you can make those compromises you have to go through a lot of political theatre, I think, and at the moment everyone’s focused on Covid-19. Which is fine.’
He pointed out that current pinch points required the focus of politicians, and not technocrats dealing on their behalf.
‘We have this issue with the negotiations where all the actual decisions that need to be taken in order to conclude the free trade agreement on issues such as state aid, level playing field, role of the court of justice – are big, political, meaty issues,’ he said.
Lowe does believe a deal by the end of year is still possible but pursuing one is just ‘massively irresponsible’.
He said: ‘Is there still time to do it this year? Yeah, of course there is, I just think it’s massively irresponsible to do it this year because you’re asking businesses to adapt to a big change – whether there’s an agreement or not – right after they’ve had to deal with the fallout of a global pandemic and a recession.’
The government insists the Covid-19 crisis makes little difference to negotiation hurdles but does admit that hard decisions for politicians lie ahead.
‘He will at some point need to get involved,’ a UK government source said, referring to Boris Johnson entering the fray on talks.
‘I don’t think we’re at that point yet. He needs to get involved when we are settling or dealing with the most sensitive political aspects of this negotiation.’
Until then, governments across the Channel will be eager to see through the affects of coronavirus on their societies before locking into new trade commitments.