The European Union and UK government have agreed to resume post-Brexit talks next week, where they will confront entrenched divisions on trade and fishing rights over video link.
The two sides released a timetable for the next three rounds of negotiations in an attempt to get coronavirus-disrupted talks back on track, following a video conference on Wednesday between the prime minister’s chief negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
Following Brexit day on 31 January, the EU and UK managed only one round of talks before coronavirus crashed them. There were two cancelled sessions and the lead players were put into isolation.
Barnier came down with coronavirus in March and has recovered. Frost, who had “mild symptoms” of the virus, is no longer self-isolating. While the two leads were confined to their homes, the EU and UK continued working on draft legal texts, but progress ground to a halt.
In a joint statement, the two sides said recent technical work had been “useful to identify all major areas of divergence and convergence”, but they agreed there was a need to organise further talks “in order to make real, tangible progress in the negotiations by June”.
The next round will begin next week, with further talks scheduled for the weeks of 11 May and 1 June. Agendas for the negotiating sessions have not yet been published, but are expected to cover the 11 key topics of post-Brexit talks, including trade, security policy and fisheries.
During the video call, Frost told Barnier the UK did not intend to seek an extension to the 11-month transition period, which ends on 31 December 2020.
Yet EU diplomats are increasingly convinced that London will ask for an extension, as the fallout from coronavirus hammers the global economy and consumes political energy across Europe.
Any decision to extend the transition must be agreed by both sides by 1 July and would require a deal on new payments into the EU budget. The transition period – which keeps the UK in the EU single market and customs union without voting rights – can be prolonged for up to two years, but only once.
As the clock ticks down, EU diplomats are dismayed the UK has failed to produce a draft legal text on fisheries, despite a goal to agree on fishing rights covering 100 shared species by 1 July.
The absence of a UK text is perceived as an attempt by the British to gain the upper hand by attempting to delay difficult issues until the last minute. EU sources insist there will be no agreement on anything without a deal on fish.
The two sides have not narrowed their differences on any of the major sticking points, such as agreement on common environmental, social and competition law standards for free trade, or the role of the European court of justice.
Last Friday the UK handed two legal texts to the EU, covering energy and law enforcement, adding to previous documents sent to Brussels, which cover trade, air safety, air transport and civil nuclear.
The British have irritated EU diplomats by denying Barnier permission to share these texts with national capitals. That means the 27 EU member states, who will make the ultimate decision on the terms of the future relationship, are relying on analysis and summaries from Barnier and his negotiating team, rather than the original documents.
The commission has published its 440-page draft legal text online, reflecting its longstanding Brexit transparency policy – and the reality that documents rarely remain secret for long in Brussels.