LONDON – The European Union and Britain said Wednesday they had held “constructive” talks on their future relationship despite the coronavirus pandemic scuttling face-to-face negotiations. But the two sides remain far apart on whether a deal can be sealed by the end of the year.
Chief negotiators Michel Barnier, for the EU, and David Frost for the U.K. met by video conference to set dates for further week-long rounds of talks in late April, mid-May and early June.
The two sides said in a joint statement that the goal was “to make real, tangible progress” by June, when a high-level summit is scheduled to decide whether there is a chance of success by the end of the year.
Britain officially left the 27-nation bloc on Jan. 31, but remains within the EU’s economic orbit, including its single market for trade in goods and services, until the end of the year. The two sides have until then to work out a new relationship covering trade, security and a host of other issues.
The EU already considered that a tight deadline — most trade deals take years to negotiate. Under the terms of the U.K.-EU divorce agreement, the transition period can be extended for two more years.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted he would not ask for that extension, before the coronavirus pandemic upended life and consumed the energies of governments around the globe.
Plans for talks in London and Brussels were scrapped and both Barnier and Frost fell sick with COVID-19, though both have recovered.
Both sides see the June summit as the last opportunity to postpone the deadline past Dec. 31. EU nations and the bloc’s top officials are overwhelmingly against hemming themselves into a tight deadline as set by London.
But even as Johnson recovers from a case of COVID-19 that put him in intensive care, the U.K. government says it will not ask for more time.
“The government’s policy on this is unchanged, and it’s also written in law that the transition period will end on Dec. 31,” Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said Wednesday.