EU diplomats and officials are working on the assumption the Prime Minister will eventually U-turn on his pledge to leave the bloc’s single market and customs union by the end of the year. Face-to-face negotiations were suspended last week after just one round, after it emerged both sides’chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, were in self-isolation. And as the global pandemic continues to spread at an alarming rate, the UK and EU have focused their efforts on bringing the disease back under control.
European sources have claimed the bandwidth simply doesn’t exist to conduct trade talks and deal with the political and economic fallout sparked by the coronavirus crisis.
One senior EU diplomat said: “Depending on how coronavirus evolves, we might run into problems with how to deal with the negotiations with the UK.
“We have already said it would be a tight schedule to get everything done within one year, and now negotiations are formally ongoing but very difficult to do, I think that only strengthens the argument that many of us had that we need more than one year.”
Brussels is even ready to consider offering Mr Johnson the opportunity to present any one-off extension beyond December 31 as a victory in order to help the Prime Minister sell the delay domestically.
However, any delay would see a tense negotiation over the money Britain would be made to inject into the bloc’s budget.
European capitals would also seek to make these talks “manageable” for Mr Johnson in a bid to get a deal over the line, according to one EU source.
The Prime Minister has publicly denied that he is ready to remain under the EU’s rulebook beyond the end of the year even with the coronavirus halting negotiations.
After last week’s negotiations were cancelled, a UK Government spokesman said: “The transition period ends on December 31, 2020. This is enshrined in UK law.”
But one EU ambassador hinted Mr Johnson’s next move could reveal the type of deal with Brussels he was really seeking.
They said: “If they don’t want an extension, they really want a hard Brexit on December 31.”
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Mr Gove is scheduled to meet his EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, the European commissioner responsible for inter-institutional relationships, on March 30.
He will be joined by his deputy Penny Mordaunt, the Paymaster General, in the discussions that are expected to be held over teleconference.