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The coronavirus pandemic should “concentrate the minds” of European Union negotiators and speed up a deal on Britain’s post-Brexit ties with the bloc, Michael Gove has said.
The Cabinet minister told MPs on the Commons EU future relationship committee that the global crisis would highlight the “vital importance” of wrapping up talks, amid signs of a deadlock in recent days.
Britain is currently due to exit its post-Brexit transition period with the EU – where it remains closely aligned to the bloc’s rules – at the end of 2020.
Ministers have repeatedly rejected calls to extend that transition period to account for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
And Mr Gove told the committee: “I think the Covid crisis, in some respects, should concentrate the minds of EU negotiators, reinforcing the vital importance of coming to a conclusion.”
He added: “Deadlines concentrate minds.”
The Cabinet minister also insisted it was “still entirely possible to conclude negotiations on the timetable that has been outlined”, putting the chances of reaching a deal with the bloc in time at “definitely better than 2-1”.
Mr Gove’s upbeat comments come after the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Friday labelled the latest round of Brexit talks “disappointing” – and said the UK “did not wish to commit seriously on a number of fundamental points”.
A spokesperson for the UK Government meanwhile admitted there had only been “limited progress” after several days of negotiations conducted via video link due to the global pandemic.
Mr Barnier singled out several areas, including fisheries, as causes for concern in the race to get a free trade agreement signed off by the end of the year.
On that particular topic he said “no progress” had been made as Britain has “not put forward a legal text”.
But Number 10 said: “Clearly there will need to be political movement on the EU side to move negotiations forward, particularly on fisheries and level playing field issues, in order to help find a balanced solution which reflects the political realities on both sides.”
Mr Gove told the committee that the EU was continuing to push for a single agreement covering all aspects of the future relationship, while the UK is pressing for a series of smaller, separate agreements.
And he revealed that Britain had stood down its planning operation for a no-deal Brexit, despite concern that a lack of agreement at the end of this year could leave the country in a similar situation to the one averted by the withdrawal agreement that came into force at the end of January.
“We don’t have any plans to stand up operation Yellowhammer again because we are confident we will secure agreement,” Mr Gove said.
Best for Britain, a campaign group that wants the UK to maintain close ties with the bloc after Brexit, said: “It makes sense to shift the Government’s focus from Brexit to dealing with coronavirus.
“But that leaves a big hole in the Government’s plans to agree a comprehensive trade deal with the EU, and its ability to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.”
And the Liberal Democrats, who have long campaigned against Brexit, said it was “deeply concerning that the Government still refuses to extend the transition period during the coronavirus crisis”.
Acting leader Sir Ed Davey added: “The Government must now face up to this reality and seek an extension to the transition period. We must prioritise the safety and wellbeing of the British public over an arbitrary deadline and Brexit ideology.”