UK will need to extend Brexit transition, Merkel ally warns Britain

By Toby Helm

Boris Johnson must extend the UK’s transition out of the EU for up to two years to avoid compounding the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic with a hugely disruptive and disorderly Brexit, according to a close ally of Angela Merkel.

In an interview with the Observer, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said it was now impossible to see how the UK and other EU countries could agree even a minimal outline free trade agreement this year because the talks were so behind schedule.

The transition period is due to end on 31 December unless the UK asks for a prolongation by 30 June. The maximum extension would be two years, under the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Röttgen said he could not see any sensible option other than for the UK to apply for the extension to avoid even more damage to the British and European economies. On Friday, Michel Barnier said there had been “limited progress” in the initial stages of “virtual” negotiations, which he said was disappointing.

Röttgen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, said: “Before the current coronavirus crisis, I think it would have been possible to have a minimum agreement with the UK on the broad outlines to avoid a crash [the UK crashing out with no deal], with more detailed negotiations then taking place afterwards.

“I can’t imagine now that this is possible, given the fact that all the EU countries, Brussels and London are so absorbed by the pandemic – and this will go on. Given this situation, I don’t believe that there is a realistic possibility any longer to even achieve the necessary minimum. So you have to extend.”

Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.
Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, is a close ally of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty

But he said it would be up to Boris Johnson to realise the consequences of a disorderly exit amid this pandemic.

The pandemic will cause more economic damage than we can now imagine. To think that you could then add to this extraordinary situation a very disorderly exit, to me is not imaginable. I think everyone will say that this is not in the British interest or in the interest of any of us.”

The Brexit transition began when the UK left the EU on 31 January. The arrangement – under which the UK is outside the EU but continues to be subject to its rules and a member of the single market and customs union – was negotiated by both sides to smooth the UK’s exit.

The transition was also designed to allow the UK to continue much of its previous relationship with the EU while the fine details of a future trading relationship and security co-operation were negotiated.

Barnier cited an alarming lack of progress in four of the most crucial areas of the talks. Sources said he was greatly frustrated that the UK did not appear ready either to discuss detail or make compromises.

The four areas of difference were the so-called “level playing field” (the extent to which the UK would adopt EU standards to have access to the single market); fisheries, particularly EU access to UK waters; security co-operation and governance issues.

The German MEP David McAllister, who chairs the UK co-ordination in the European Parliament (correct) said both sides were now “under enormous time pressure to organise a half-way orderly exit of the UK from the single market and the customs union.”

It had been hoped that an outline deal could be concluded over the coming months, in time for it to be signed off over the summer by EU leaders. But talks between the UK and EU sides are well behind schedule, although the second set of discussions, effected by video link, ended last week.

EU officials have said that concluding deals on such complex issues – already a lengthy and tortuous process – is far more difficult without face-to-face meetings. One high-level EU source said: “You can get so far but what you can’t do is go away into small groups of six or eight people in a dark room and hammer out the final, vital details. That is not possible in a virtual meeting.”

The UK is also understood to have redeployed some of its staff who were posted to the EU trade talks to coronavirus duties since the Covid-19 pandemic developed.

The issue of whether to apply for an extension is now emerging as a huge additional problem for Johnson, who prides himself on having “got Brexit done”. Until now, Downing Street has said it will not contemplate asking the EU for an extension under any circumstances.

To do so, Johnson would have to reverse legislation that, in effect, bars him from seeking an extension, and he would have to agree additional financial contributions to the EU to pay for that extension.

Another senior EU politician involved in the talks said there were signs of division appearing on the UK side, with some civil servants and Tory MPs believing the UK had to find a way to abandon its opposition to extending the transition: “I think there is a recognition by some on the UK side that they have to extend but no one knows how to do it. The question is what Johnson will decide when he returns to Downing Street after his illness. It is a big political problem for them.”

The terms of the withdrawal agreement allow a UK–EU joint committee to extend the transition period by up to two years, but it must sign off on the length of any extension before 1 July. EU lawyers say that once that window is missed, EU law makes it very difficult to agree to any extension.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, who is regularly in touch with diplomats in EU capitals, said: “It will be very hard for both sides to reach the outlines of a free trade agreement by autumn, or indeed by June, which is when the PM wants to take a decision on whether it is worth pursuing a free trade agreement.

“Last week should have been the fifth round of negotiations, but it was the second. The bottom line is that on both sides the top politicians’ attention is focused on coronavirus, not Brexit, which makes a deal in the short term highly unlikely.”