Jim Brunsden in Brussels and George Parker in London
The most powerful political group in the European Parliament has called on Britain to request an extension to its post-Brexit transition period, saying the threat posed by coronavirus meant that common sense should “prevail over ideology”.
The intervention by the European People’s party, the parliament’s large centre-right grouping, marks the most direct call yet from Brussels for the UK to lift the uncertainty hanging over business by agreeing to prolong the transition beyond the end of this year.
“An extension of the transition period is the only responsible thing to do,” said Christophe Hansen, an EPP member of the parliament’s international trade committee, in a statement issued by the group. “I cannot see how the UK government would choose to expose itself to the double whammy of the coronavirus and the exit from the EU single market.”
EU officials have warned that the Covid-19 outbreak means that companies on both sides of the channel will have little capacity to prepare for the disruption to EU-UK trading arrangements that the end of the transition period will bring.
Trade commissioner Phil Hogan and other senior EU figures have stressed that Britain’s determination to leave the EU single market and customs union would mean a hard border for trade in goods, with new checks and administrative formalities, even if the two sides successfully negotiate a future-relationship deal that preserves core economic ties.
Those talks have been hobbled by the pandemic. The virus has played havoc with plans to hold an intensive series of face-to-face negotiating rounds. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has tested positive for Covid-19; David Frost, the UK chief negotiator, self-isolated earlier this month after developing mild coronavirus symptoms.
The EPP, a political grouping that at national level includes leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, said in its statement that an extension would be “the responsible thing to do”.
Under the terms of Britain’s EU exit deal, an extension of up to two years is possible if both sides agree to one before the end of June.
Brussels has made no secret of its desire for the UK to ask for more time, and pushed the idea following Boris Johnson’s election victory in December. But the British prime minister has been adamant that the end of 2020 should be a hard deadline, and the government enshrined the date in its Brexit legislation.
“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, as enshrined in UK law, which the prime minister has made clear he has no intention of changing,” said a UK government spokesperson.
But some senior British government officials say that an extension to the Brexit transition period is inevitable.
Changing the law to extend the period would be possible given Mr Johnson’s 80-seat majority and the likelihood that opposition parties would support the move, but some Tory Eurosceptics would be furious.
Asked if talks on a post-Brexit trade deal were on track, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “Both sides know the deadline we are working towards.”
The transition period keeps Britain within the single market and all other EU co-operation arrangements as if it were still a member state, but without any political representation or say over the bloc’s decisions. Any extension would require the UK to pay a financial contribution to the EU that would have to be negotiated with Brussels.
The EPP’s call for an extension came on the same day that Britain and the EU held the inaugural meeting — by teleconference — of the joint committee tasked with implementing last year’s Brexit deal.
The committee is led by UK cabinet office minister Michael Gove and EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.