Downing Street reopens EU talks– will NOT extend December 31 deadline

Downing Street last night vowed to thrash out a trade deal with Brussels by the end of the year – despite negotiations grinding to a halt due to the coronavirus crisis.

Chief negotiator David Frost held crunch talks with Michel Barnier’s deputy Clara Martinez Alberola to discuss how progress can be made over the coming weeks. Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “We will remain absolutely committed to continuing the negotiations. Everybody knows the timetable that they are working to.” He added Britain would not seek to extend the transition period beyond December 31.

EU sources have claimed progress is at a standstill with both sides running out of topics to discuss.

Last week officials held daily phone calls as the EU and UK teams continued to clarify their counterparts positions, in areas such as fishing, mobility, trade and justice and home affairs.

Both teams are analysing draft free-trade agreements tabled almost three weeks ago, but there has been little sign of an immediate breakthrough.

A UK Government spokesman said: “David Frost and the EU’s deputy head of the task force, Clara Martinez Alberola, and their teams spoke by video conference to take stock of those discussions and to consider the next steps.

“They agreed that there was scope for further productive discussions and contact should continue in the next few days.”

Planned negotiating rounds have been scrapped after it was deemed too risky to hold face-to-face talks in the midst of the global pandemic.

Instead both sides will continue to plough on with talks over the phone while a more concrete negotiating plan is devised by the chief negotiators.

Mr Frost and Mr Barnier, who have self-isolated after displaying coronavirus symptoms, have agreed to hold a high-level discussion in a bid of reaching a breakthrough.

They both hope to reach a timetable in order to move the negotiations forward in April and May.

A European Commission spokesman said: “Michel Barnier will speak with David Frost next week to agree a calendar for the next steps in order to move the negotiations forward, taking into account the coronavirus outbreak.”

Officials from both sides have so far failed to agree on a format for remote negotiations, with video conferencing still a favoured option, to be carried out successfully.

Yesterday, Ursula von der Leyen’s chief spokesman said the Commission had reservations of using off-the-shelf applications because of security concerns.

“Many of these are not secure enough according to our criteria,” he said.

“It’s not as if we can suddenly take something and use it like that.”

Last week Mr Johnson posted a picture of him chairing a Cabinet meeting using the Zoom video conferencing application.

It is understood Brussels has ordered its officials not to use the freely available software because of security concerns.

Under the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, the UK remains inside the bloc’s single market and customs union until the end of the year as part of the transition period.

A one-off extension, of up to two years, can be agreed by both sides before June 30.

The UK and EU have denied holding any formal negotiations over such a possibility.

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