Brexit talks halted as member of Michael Barnier’s team tests positive for Covid
Brexit negotiations were halted ahead of a looming deadline for the UK-EU trade deal on Thursday after a member of Michel Barnier’s team tested positive for coronavirus.
Face-to-face talks between Mr Barnier and David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, will not be possible at a crucial point in the talks, with the timetable to avoid no deal extremely tight. EU chief negotiator Mr Barnier, who must now quarantine for up to 10 days, broke the news on Twitter.
"One of the negotiators on my team has tested positive for Covid-19. With David Frost, we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period," he wrote.
Lord Frost, who officials said was in "permanent" online contact with Mr Barnier said: "The health of our teams comes first."
David Frost said: 'The health of our teams comes first'
Credit: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images Europe
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, wished the ill official a "speedy recovery" and said "work will continue in full respect of Covid-19 rules".
A UK Government spokesman said: "The UK and EU teams have agreed to continue to negotiate remotely for the time being. The talks will resume in person when it is judged safe to do so."
There is no need for anyone on the UK side to self-isolate. When face-to face talks can resume, it is expected that the negotiations will be in London.
Under Belgian law, anyone who has come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid must self-isolate. If someone has a negative test, the quarantine is cut to seven days.
Negotiations were conducted online after the pandemic first broke out in March. Face-to-face talks resumed in July after negotiators complained that online talks made it hard to reach difficult compromises.
EU diplomatic sources claim the trade deal is 90 per cent done but warn that crucial breakthroughs on fishing, "level playing field" guarantees and protocols around the deal’s enforcement remain elusive.
An UK-EU free trade agreement could be announced as early as Monday, a source predicted, if compromises are made.
News of the Covid case plunged the tight timetable for the agreement and ratification of the trade deal into disarray, but Brexit deadlines have a habit of being stretched.
A senior EU official warned that if the deal was not agreed by Monday there would not be enough time to translate the agreement into the EU’s other 23 official languages for ratification by the European Parliament.
MEPs must ratify the finalised agreement before the end of the year, otherwise the UK will trade with the EU on WTO no-deal terms from January 1.
A few more weeks could be bought if the decision was made to forego translation and simply ratify the deal in English, the official said. Diplomatic sources said that was likely to be resisted by France.
Senior EU diplomats have predicted that a "creative solution" could be found to ratify the deal beyond the end of the year if one could be agreed before December 31.
Mr Barnier, who told Mrs von der Leyen on Wednesday that the talks were in their "final push", was set to brief EU ambassadors in Brussels on Friday. A deputy will now take the meeting.
Ursula von der Leyen has been told that the talks are heading for their 'final push'
Credit: Thierry Monasse/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
It is not the first time the pandemic has played havoc with the Brexit negotiations. In March, Mr Barnier tested positive for coronavirus and self-isolated for two weeks. Lord Frost self-isolated the day after Mr Barnier’s diagnosis, after showing mild symptoms.
Belgium is under lockdown and, until recently, had the highest rate of coronavirus infections in the EU, with Brussels one of the epicentres. With 657.9 confirmed cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the past two weeks, the country is now ranked 14th in the list of Covid infections in Europe.
EU leaders were expected to discuss the zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal during a video conference summit on Thursday night, focused on coronavirus.
Countries including the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Spain asked the commission – which is negotiating with Britain on behalf of the bloc – to update emergency plans for no deal.
Mr Barnier’s team is understood to be resisting the push to publish the plans over concerns that they could destabilise the delicately poised negotiations.
Downing Street said talks with Canada on securing a transitional trade agreement to replace the EU-Canada trade deal were at an "advanced stage" and "progressing well". The rollover agreement is not a fully fledged free trade agreement but maintains the status quo after the UK leaves the transition period and Canada deal.