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Brexit negotiations to press ahead despite coronavirus shutdown, UK and EU confirm

David Frost and Michel Barnier have both had stints in self-isolation during the coronavirus outbreak.

3 min read

Talks on Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union are to continue despite the global coronavirus pandemic, both sides have announced.

A joint statement following “constructive” discussions between the UK’s chief negotator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier confirmed that three more rounds of talks are now on the cards in the coming weeks.

The statement came just hours after Downing Street again rejected suggestions Britain could seek an extension to its current implementation period with the EU, which sees the UK stay closely aligned to Brussels until the end of this year.

Mr Frost and Mr Barnier - who have both endured stints in self-isolation amid the coronavirus outbreak - held talks via videolink on Wednesday.

A statement by both the UK and EU said of the discussions: “The two 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.

“While this work has been useful to identify all major areas of divergence and convergence, the two sides agreed on the need to organise further negotiating rounds in order to make real, tangible progress in the negotiations by June.”

Fresh remote talks are, the statement said, now being lined up for the full weeks of 20 April, 11 May, 1 June - with a “high-level” meeting still on the cards for June to “take stock of the progress made”.

Ministers have repeatedly insisted that the Government’s promise to fully leave the EU by the end of 2020 and not extend the transition period remains in place despite the global pandemic.

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “We remain very committed to the timeline that we set out to conclude those by the end of this year.”

He said of the talks: “I am confident that work can continue and hopefully reach a satisfactory conclusion, but ultimately we remain committed to the timeline we have set out.”

But the Liberal Democrats, who have long opposed Brexit, criticised the decision not to put the talks on ice as countries grapple with the pandemic. 

The party’s acting leader Sir Ed Davey said: “To press ahead with Brexit on the previous timetable - already recklessly fast - is just irresponsible and shows a fundamental disregard for the UK's national interest.  

"The Government must stop putting ideology before all else - including lives - and start working pragmatically with our European neighbours, some of whom the Government could clearly learn lessons from. 

“Surely even hardline Brexiteers want the negotiation process to succeed and to give it the attention it needs - and that just isn't possible during this dangerous and damaging pandemic.”

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