With COVID-19 dominating the news, Brexit may seem like a distant memory – but it hasn't gone away. In this briefing, with the help of trade policy expert Dmitry Grozoubinski, we look at what's been happening in the Brexit negotiations, what can (and can't) be done by video conference and the prospects for an extension.
How is COVID-19 affecting the Brexit negotiations?
It's important to distinguish between two sets of talks. Most media attention has focussed on the talks about the future UK-EU relationship, where the first round of talks took place from 2 to 5 March. However, with the lead negotiators for both sides having to self-isolate because of COVID-19 and several EU countries already in lockdown, neither the second nor the third rounds were able to proceed as planned. Progress has therefore been limited, although the EU has published a draft text setting out its view of how the eventual agreement might look. The UK is reported to have provided some draft text of its own, although this is thought to be less comprehensive than the EU's text (and it has not been made public). On 16 April, the parties agreed to hold further talks by video conference.
Although some progress has been made in the Brexit negotiations, talks about the future relationship are behind schedule and the timetable – which was already extremely tight – is now even more challenging.
Less attention has focussed on a second set of EU-UK talks about detailed arrangements to implement certain aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement, such as those relating to Northern Ireland and citizens' rights. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the first meeting of the Joint Committee of EU and UK representatives went ahead as planned on 30 March by video conference. It was agreed that various specialised committees should start work on detailed proposals, to be discussed at the next meeting in June.
With the transition period currently due to end on 31 December 2020, the timetable for both sets of talks was already extremely tight, even before the COVID-19 pandemic entered the picture.
We spoke to trade expert Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former negotiator for the Australian government, about the limits of video conferencing when it comes to trade talks. He told us the difficulties can be divided into practical, technical and political problems.
"The key practical issue is that the UK and EU negotiating teams are large and even the smaller sub-meetings involve half a dozen people per side. A 12-way video conference is difficult to manage, which makes the more formal side of the negotiations more difficult. But a lot of progress at key moments in negotiations happens between sessions, in small informal breakout coffees or even in hallways. And a lot happens because of trust built up between the negotiators, which is hard to replicate when you're not face to face."
Input will also be needed from officials outside the negotiating room – which will be difficult to obtain in the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis.
He also highlighted the technical challenge of getting input from other officials outside the immediate negotiating team. "A big chunk of negotiators' time is spent on coming up with legal language both sides can live with. They might agree on what they're trying to do, but finding language to capture it is the trick. This process requires constant input and verification from officials outside the negotiating room. Right now, most government departments are too busy trying to keep the country from imploding to be scrutinising legal text. They may also have many of their staff working from home, which further complicates the communication process where input from numerous individuals is needed. And most trade negotiators - and the officials they need input from - are not tech savvy Silicon Valley types, so it will take time for them to develop new ways of working that are dependent on technology. All this means that teams will struggle to get the necessary input and clearance from 'outside the negotiating room'."
And lastly, there's the political dimension: "Every negotiation begins with politicians on both sides agreeing in principle that they want a deal, but holding some directly contradictory views on what should be in it. Negotiators work within those confines. The most a negotiator can do is reduce the unresolved issues in a negotiation down to a small handful for political leaders to make the final decision on. With COVID-19 taking up so much bandwidth, politicians just aren't going to be in the right headspace to make those calls."
Dmitry's view is that in a normal trade negotiation, with no time limit, the problems with video conferencing outlined above would not be an insurmountable obstacle to getting a deal done - it would just take even longer than usual. But in line with many other commentators, he regards the timetable for both sets of EU-UK talks as extremely challenging – and that is the key reason why he thinks that conducting the Brexit negotiations solely by video conference is problematic.
An extension would not just provide more time for the negotiations - it would also help to reduce the prospect of a further significant economic shock on top of the one produced by COVID-19.
The Withdrawal Agreement permits an extension of the transition period of up to two years, provided it is agreed by July 2020. This would allow more time for the negotiations. Just as importantly, it could also allow more time for business to prepare for the new arrangements, knowing exactly what they would be preparing for. As we explained in our previous briefing, this aspect of an extension could be crucial in avoiding a situation where a sudden switch to new trading arrangements with the EU results in a further economic shock, on top of the one already produced by COVID-19.
A number of recent opinion polls suggest that a majority of UK voters would support an extension, mainly on the basis that the immediate priority has to be dealing with COVID-19. However, for the time being – possibly because of some of the political considerations outlined in our previous briefing – the UK government continues to insist that it will not be seeking any extension.
Dmitry Grozoubinski has worked as a trade negotiator for the Australian Government and is the founder of ExplainTrade, a Geneva-based consultancy specialising in bespoke training, commentary and advice on negotiations, trade policy and communications.