British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting COVID-19 in intensive care. At the same time, on both sides of the Brexit talks, key negotiators have either tested positive for the virus or are self isolating with symptoms, including the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his British counterpart, David Frost.
It seems inconceivable that Brexit could still happen on time. After all, Brexit talks have been suspended. All planned EU-UK negotiating rounds have been abandoned, with trade talks effectively put into “deep freeze” as a result of the pandemic. In truth, the negotiations were only at an early stage anyway, with the British government yet to table a comprehensive legal text as the basis of its negotiating position.
Britain officially left the European Union on 31 January. However, Brexit is a process not an event; the country remains in a “transition period” until the end of 2020, meaning it has full access to the EU Single Market (albeit without a seat at the table when decisions are being made). The transition can be extended once by two years, to 31 December 2022, but the deadline to submit for an extension is 30 June (and, in practice, the request for a delay will need to have been submitted well before then so there is time to negotiate the terms of the extension, including how much the UK will need to contribute to the EU budget in order, effectively, to buy Single Market access).
The British government is prohibited by law from asking for an extension. In theory, the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act prevents the UK from requesting a delay. In practice, however, the law can be amended to remove that prohibition (though there are still risks involved, given the tight deadline, the fact the Prime Minister is in intensive care and cabinet may be hesitant to take big decisions without him, and the possibility of Parliament being suspended).
British companies worry they won’t be prepared for a “no deal” Brexit in the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Government, too, is preoccupied with the coronavirus response at the moment, lacking the necessary bandwidth to plan for crashing out of the EU without a deal.
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