Boris Johnson’s lead negotiator has ordered the European Commission not to share a number of draft legal texts with member states amid fears they could be leaked. David Frost has tabled a preliminary free-trade agreement, including chapters on nuclear and aviation cooperation, but has instructed Michel Barnier to keep the details amongst his team of negotiators. However, EU diplomats have expressed fears of allowing negotiations to progress while their capitals are blocked from scrutinising the UK’s trade offer.
One Brussels source said: “Member states would still quite like to see by themselves if the UK text is clear.”
European capitals have had to rely on briefings from Mr Barnier’s team after a series of informal talks with their British counterparts to “clarify” their positions.
Mr Frost and Mr Barnier will hold talks this afternoon in hope of restarting the negotiations process, which has ground to a halt since the coronavirus outbreak plunged Europe into chaos.
The pair are expected to hammer out a timetable to allow the reopening of formal trade talks via video link after previous face-to-face rounds were abandoned amid fears travelling officials would be at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.
Mr Frost is also expected to table new draft legal texts on energy and justice and home affairs cooperation ahead of the next round of talks.
The European Commission yesterday said it would be willing to negotiate an extension to the post-Brexit transition because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“The Withdrawal Agreement provides the possibility to extend the transition period why up to one to two years. We have always said that we are ready to discuss such an extension,” a spokesman said.
Downing Street continues to insist that the deadline will not be extended beyond the end of the year and is enshrined in law.
At Tuesday’s daily coronavirus press conference, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he was confident that trade talks would conclude a deal by the end of the year.
He said: “We remain committed to the timeline that we set out to conclude those talks by the end of this year.”
Under the EU Withdrawal Agreement, any extension request must be made by July, and would see Britain remain following the bloc’s rulebook.
However Brussels expects the UK to eventually to request a delay, which would trigger a negotiation over the payment for continued access to the single market and customs union.
MUST READ: Boris warned not to delay Brexit and leave UK’s future in EU hands
Member states were last week informed no formal negotiations had taken place on the possibility of extending the transition period.
Mr Frost is understood to have spent the last few days consulting senior Cabinet ministers, including First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, on the whether he should raise a delay with Mr Barnier.
But they warned him remaining under the EU’s rules could mean Britain helping to shoulder the burden of the bloc’s economic recovery from coronavirus.
However, some ministers suggested the bloc could still request its own delay, which would be hard for Britain to turn down in the spirit of being good neighbours.