European Union negotiators will not travel to London next week for the second round of post-Brexit trade talks with the UK because of the coronavirus outbreak that is tightening its grip across Europe.
In a joint statement, negotiating teams from both sides said they were looking at “alternative ways” of continuing the negotiations, including by video conferencing.
“Given the latest COVID-19 developments, UK and EU negotiators have today jointly decided not to hold next week’s round of negotiations in London, in the form originally scheduled,” they said.
“Both sides are currently exploring alternative ways to continue discussions, including if possible the use of video conferences.”
Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the EU warned there were “serious divergences” with the UK on the terms of their future ties as their first week of talks ended with the two sides very far apart on Thursday.
While Britain left the political institutions of the EU on January 31, it remains part of the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants a comprehensive trade deal completed this year and won’t seek an extension to the country’s current transition period, insisting that 11 months is more than enough time to secure a wide-ranging deal with the EU for goods and services. Under the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, the country can request a one-off extension to the transition for up two years.
The coronavirus outbreak, though, has raised questions whether a deal can now be completed in time, given the increasingly onerous restrictions on an array of fronts that are being put in place as a result of the outbreak.
Opposition MPs from the Labour Party have said that Johnson should ask for an extension given how an already tight timetable has been made even tighter by the virus.
The talks began earlier this month in Brussels, and are due to alternate between the EU’s headquarters there and London.
“We are looking at how the discussions can take place using an alternative forum such as video conferencing,” a spokesman for Johnson said.