COVID-19: Brexit talks continue – Video conference replaces megaphone
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many people are now uttering the line "I miss Brexit!"
Brexit seemed the most difficult issue facing the UK and the European Union until both sides encountered the "life or death" COVID-19 crisis.
But the virus has not got rid of Brexit. Even post-virus, Brexit will still be with us.
Where are we mid-April 2020 on Brexit?
- We are in still in the transition phase between 1 February 2020 and 31 December 2020 where the UK has left the EU but most of the EU rules still apply to the UK (and in the UK)
- If no agreement is reached between the EU and the UK to replace the current transition agreement (known as the Withdrawal Agreement) then the UK will become a full third country (as far as the EU is concerned) on 1 January 2021 and the relationship between the two will be more difficult
- However, the UK may ask for the current transition arrangements to be extended - only the UK may ask for an extension, it is not open to the EU to do so. The Withdrawal Agreement provides that the UK must do so by 30 June 2020. In the realpolitik, the application might be later but the 30 June 2020 deadline is in the Withdrawal Agreement
- The Joint Committee between the EU and the UK on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement has already met (the EU's Maroš Šefčovič and the UK's Michael Gove met on 30 March 2020) and further specialised committees (including on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland) are due to meet
The talks on the Relationship Agreement (i.e. the post-transition period agreement) have commenced. The usual face to face talks were delayed because the European Commission's Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier contracted COVID-19 and the UK's Chief Negotiator David Frost showed signs of COVID-19. Now, however, even the face to face element has been shelved for the moment because of the virus crisis. So the megaphone has been replaced by the video conference.
Progress in the talks is somewhat easier than one might have imagined despite the very difficult issues on the agenda. First, there is less media attention to the Brexit discussions. Given that so much media attention is being given to the COVID-19 crisis, there is a real opportunity for the Brexit discussions to make real progress away from the glare of the media spotlight. Progress is often made in EU discussions when the cameras are switched off (e.g., the Thornton Manor talks on 10 October 2019 where the Irish and UK Prime Ministers brokered their "pathway" agreement during their walk in the garden). So, one might see more progress made in the current less frenzied media atmosphere. Secondly, for many Brexiteers, the real prize was actually leaving the EU and that has been achieved (and is difficult to reverse because Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union would require the UK to make a full-blown application as if it had never been in the EU).
Remainers may be somewhat disappointed that it will now be difficult to see precisely any negative impact on the UK economy because of Brexit. Economists agree that the UK economy will contract (and has already started). Brexiteers will attribute the contraction to COVID-19. Remainers will say that it is COVID-19 coupled with Brexit. While comparisons could be made between the plight of the UK economy and the Remaining EU economies, comparisons will be more difficult than ever given the varied impact of COVID-19 on different countries.
In a media release on 15 April 2020, both the EU and the UK said that both sides "took stock of the technical work that has taken place since the first negotiating round on the basis of the legal texts exchanged by both sides." The use of the phrase "technical work" should mean that the talks will continue without too much political interference. Both sides referred to the video meeting as "constructive" which is helpful. Moreover, both sides "agreed on the need to organise further negotiating rounds in order to make real, tangible progress in the negotiations by June". One could see the UK not seeking an extension by the end of June (so as to maintain pressure) but no one would really blame the UK for seeking an extension due to the COVID-19 crisis given that the UK has been affected so badly by COVID-19.
Between now and June, there will be various negotiating rounds – the structure of which is set out in the Terms of Reference and they will take place by video conference. Three negotiating rounds – each lasting a full week – have been set for the weeks commencing 20 April, 11 May and 1 June. There is a High Level meeting foreseen for June will take stock of the progress made.
Brexit is no longer the top story in the news cycle but if the current talks (which have a bit of breathing space) do not go well, one can expect that Brexit will be further up the headlines again. In the meantime, despite the immediate COVID-19 catastrophe facing many businesses, executives need to keep a weather eye out on Brexit. There may be a vaccine for COVID-19 but there is no vaccine for Brexit and the consequences can be just as long-lasting.
For more information on this topic please contact Dr Vincent Power, Partner or any member of A&L Goodbody's EU, Competition & Procurement team.
Date published: 17 April 2020