Boris Johnson is facing calls to delay Britain’s final parting from the European Union as his government grapples with a mutant strain of coronavirus while the Brexit negotiations enter their final hours.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Tobias Ellwood, one of Johnson’s own members of parliament, all said the prime minister should extend the transition period — which keeps Britain in the bloc’s single market and bound by the EU’s rules until Dec. 31. That would allow talks to continue beyond the year-end.
Doing that is easier said than done. Here’s why a delay is unlikely:
1. Legally, It’s Really Difficult
The transition period was enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement signed last year. It included the option to extend it by up to 24 months beyond Dec. 31 — but only if a decision to extend was taken before the end of June 2020.
It’s no longer legally possible to change the Withdrawal Agreement, which came into effect on Jan. 31 when the U.K. left the EU.
If the U.K. wanted to extend the transition period, it would, according to senior EU lawyers, require a completely new treaty that would need the unanimous approval of all 27 EU member states.
There would be much legal wrangling, not least over whether the U.K. would have to resume making contributions to the EU budget as it did during the transition period. One of the reasons Johnson wanted to leave the EU in the first place was to stop sending the bloc more money.
All this would be difficult to sort out at the best of times, let alone in the last few days of the year with high tension on both sides.
2. Johnson Has Always Ruled It Out
If it’s difficult legally, it may be even more so politically.
Since Johnson won the general election 12 months ago, he has repeatedly said he won’t extend the transition period. On Monday, his spokesmanruled out doing so again.
Not only is the prime minister opposed to such a move because he campaigned under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done,” he is reluctant to have negotiations with the EU hanging over his administration for years. He also considered the pressure of time to be his greatest asset in extracting concessions from the bloc.
Which leads us onto another reason why an extension of the transition isn’t on Johnson’s agenda.
3. More Time Isn’t What’s Needed
It would perhaps make sense to extend the trade negotiations if the current difficulties were caused by lack of time and the two sides needed to hold further discussions to work out where to find agreement.
But that’s not what’s happening. They have talked for months. About 98% of the 1,500-page deal is done. What it needs now is for Johnson and the EU to decide whether they are ready to compromise — in particular, on what rights boats from the bloc will have to fish in U.K. waters. If they can’t do that in the next 24 hours, there’s little reason to suggest they could do it in the next 24 months.
4 But, Never Say Never
As we’ve seen with the repeated misseddeadlines in the Brexit negotiations, if there’s the will, there’s nearly always a way.
From the outset, the EU wanted the transition period to be longer — to keep the U.K. in its orbit for longer, to carry on receiving budget payments, and because it would give more time to negotiate a more comprehensive deal on the two sides’ future relationship. So, if the political circumstances changed radically in the U.K. over the next two weeks, the EU might be ready to play ball.
And don’t rule out extensions of the transition period under other names. No-deal contingency measures or “mini-deals” might be possible, even as a short-term bridge to an overall agreement. However these would be much less comprehensive than planned trade accord.
It’s also possible, although very unlikely, that the bulk of the trade deal is agreed before the end of the year and the two sides take more time to resolve the last remaining sticking points.
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