© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, wearing a face mask, leaves the Brexit trade negotiations in London
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Chief Brexit negotiators suspended direct talks on Thursday after a member of the EU team tested positive for COVID-19, but officials were continuing their work in line with health guidelines.
The suspension came as Finland’s European affairs minister, Tytti Tuppurainen, said the talks on a new trade agreement were at a critical stage but could still yield a comprehensive and balanced deal.
Britain’s transition out of the European Union ends on Dec. 31 and the two sides are still trying to clinch a last-minute deal.
“We are at a critical stage of the negotiations,” Tuppurainen told Reuters in a phone interview. “The time pressure is huge and we all realise that time is running out … I haven’t given up faith.”
“We all have to do our outmost in order to reach the agreement. That’s the aim of the EU. We want to have a comprehensive, a balanced agreement with the UK.”
She spoke as countries including the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Spain asked the EU’s executive Commission – which is negotiating with Britain on behalf of the bloc – to update emergency plans for no deal.
“Now that we are this late in November … it’s high time to ask the Commission to come out with (contingency measures) because we have to prepare, in case we cannot fix an agreement in time,” said a senior EU diplomat.
The Commission, however, is holding off amid a final push for a deal, diplomats and officials said.
The Commission’s Brexit spokesman had no comment on Thursday. The Commission has previously said it remains focused on getting a deal and that countries, businesses and people have had a long time to prepare for no deal.
“Taken all into consideration, the situation with COVID-19, the situation on global markets, it’s in everybody’s interest that we reach an agreement with a trading partner with trade standards so close to ours, so close to us geographically – and a close friend,” Tuppurainen said.
The chief Brexit negotiators, the EU’s Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost, suspended direct talks after an EU team member tested positive for COVID-19.
“The teams will continue their work in full respect of guidelines,” Barnier said on Twitter.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said London remained focused on securing a “zero-quota, zero-tariff” free trade agreement.
Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen will update EU national leaders on Brexit during a video call from 1700 GMT on Thursday intended also to focus on COVID-19 and the bloc’s next budget and economic recovery plan.
Several EU leaders are expected to stress the need to prepare for no deal, which would affect about a trillion dollars worth of annual bilateral trade.
On Friday, Barnier is due to update member states’ envoys on latest developments.
Diplomats told Reuters on Thursday there had been no breakthrough on the three sticking points: fish stocks, economic fair play for companies, including on state aid, and on ways to settle trade disputes.
“What is needed is a political decision from the very top in the UK. We don’t know when that comes. Or if it comes at all,” said an EU official involved in the negotiations.