Britain on Friday formally told the European Union that it would not extend the post-Brexit transition, raising the alarming prospect of a disorderly split in six months.
London and Brussels have made very little progress in agreeing a new trade deal for when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on December 31.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson rose to power last year on a pledge to “get Brexit done”, with the issue roiling UK politics — and consuming time in Brussels — ever since Britons voted to leave the bloc by a narrow margin in 2016.
His government had until July 1 to ask for more time, which Brussels was willing to give.
“That’s it,” senior minister Michael Gove told British television after finishing online talks with his EU counterparts.
“We are leaving the European Union on December 31.”
In Brussels, EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic said Gove “couldn’t be clearer”.
“I take this as a definite conclusion of this discussion,” Sefcovic said.
– A delay, of sorts –
EU officials were ready to extend talks for up to two years, until 2023, to help businesses cope with the fundamental change in links which have been in place for nearly 50 years.
But Britain conceded Friday that the added economic pressures of the coronavirus crisis — the UK economy shrank by a fifth between March and April, according to new data — meant that businesses needed some temporary relief.
To help, London said it would allow UK companies to delay submitting customs declarations and making tariff payments on their exports to EU nations for up to six months, until July 2021.
EU officials announced no reciprocal reprieve for exports from the 27 member states to Britain.
British officials said they would only consider extending the declarations and payments delay even further if a second wave of the pandemic paralysed economic activity well into next year.
“These are unprecedented times,” Johnson’s spokesman said.
– Fundamental divide –
Britain formally left the EU on January 31, ending an excruciating process that required repeated delays, and eventually cost the job of Johnson’s Conservative government predecessor, Theresa May.
London and Brussels have reported making some process on less divisive issues such as security cooperation and data protection rules.
But much more sensitive subjects such as fishing rights — an issue the pro-Brexit camp rallied around four years ago — and Britain’s acceptance of EU environmental, health, safety and state aid rules remain largely unresolved.
The bloc worries that Britain’s rejection of basic EU standards and regulations would create unfair competition, allowing UK exporters to undercut their European competitors.
Johnson’s government counters that such freedom was the whole point of Brexit, and that it is ready to walk away if Brussels does not want a basic deal removing barriers to trade.
It also says that asking for more time would not help bridge this fundamental divide, since the sides are not negotiating the finer details of tariffs on specific goods.
– Johnson gets involved –
An extension to the transition could have been politically costly for Johnson, who has seen his once-healthy lead over opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer shrink because of the health and economic crises.
Johnson will get personally involved in the negotiations for the first time on Monday, speaking to EU Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen.
Brussels on Friday confirmed that the trade talks will continue through the summer months, with negotiating rounds now set for July, August and September.
Sefcovic said Brussels was “pleading” for work to be accelerated to secure a “very close and cordial relationship” by the start of 2021.
In a last-gasp bid to extend the talks, the heads of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales wrote a joint letter telling Johnson that setting a December 31 deadline during a pandemic was “extraordinarily reckless”.
Without an extension, “at very best there will only be a damaging ‘bare bones’ trade deal or even worse, a disastrous no-deal outcome,” they warned.