Brexit 5: Positive COVID test halts Brexit discussions. So, what happens now?

If you thought that Brexit negotiation talks couldn’t go any slower, you’re about to be proven wrong. A member of the EU Brexit negotiation team tested positive for Covid-19 this week, causing EU and UK chief negotiators to step back from trade talks. Instead of our usual five points of analysis, there is really only one subject in town this week: what happens next and is this delay likely to impact the possibility of securing a deal in the next five weeks?

The EU’s Michel Barnier tweeted on Thursday that “with David Frost, we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period”, while David Frost explained that “the health of our teams comes first”. It was later confirmed that discussions would continue thereafter in “full respect” of safety guidelines.

Although talks will be suspended only momentarily, any delay will have consequences as the clock counts down to a December deadline. To put it mildly, this will be considered an unhelpful development just five weeks before a deal must be made.

As if that wasn’t enough, Covid isn’t the only obstacle that policy makers must overcome if they are to reach a deal by 31st December. Even if the EU and UK chief negotiators reach an agreement despite this Covid setback, parliament must then accept the terms upon which a deal is made. This is a challenging task.

The scale of this challenge was demonstrated when the House of Lords voted 367 to 209 to amend the Internal Market Bill, which had been accepted by the House of Commons back in September. The Bill aims to create a UK-wide internal market from 1st January, but Peers worry it will allow the UK government to “shackle” devolved administrations as powers are returned from Brussels.

Once amendments have been made by the House of Lords, it will go back to the Commons where MPs will either accept or reject the proposed changes. The complexities inherent in Brexit negotiations reflects the enormous challenge of the entire project and the obstacles that must be overcome if a deal is to be reached in time.

The main sticking points in Brexit negotiations remain focused on fish, competition regulations and how to govern the deal if it is ever agreed. These have been the main points of clash since day one of negotiations and remain high on the agenda.

Boris Johnson appears to be hinting that a no-deal Brexit is likely. On Monday he said that he is “confident [the UK] will prosper” in the event of no deal. Similarly, Lord David Frost explained that “we are working very hard to get a deal but there’s quite a lot to do” and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney stated that there is still a “very, very wide gap” on fishing and that no progress had been made on the issue since the summer.

They all seem to be foreshadowing the same dreaded event: that we leave on 31st December with no deal on Australian terms. Whether this will happen is yet to be known, but we don’t have long to wait. As the transition period finally comes to an end, the future of the UK and the EU will be revealed over the next five weeks.

The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients across the Member States of the European Union and the United Kingdom. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at