EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that together with his British counterpart David Frost “we have decided to suspend negotiations at our level for a short period.” He added that talks between lower-ranking officials will continue.
Any prolonged suspension of the talks will make it even more difficult for negotiators to close a deal before January 1, when existing trade deals between the EU and Britain expire.
“We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations. We have been and will continue to act in accordance with public health guidelines and to ensure the health and well-being of our teams,” the British government said in a statement.
Time is running out as the EU will need about four weeks to complete the approval process for any deal agreed between Barnier and Frost.
On Wednesday alone, a senior European Union official said trade talks with the UK still face “substantial work” that could extend into next week.
The UK left the EU on January 31, but a transition period in which EU rules apply to trade and other issues runs until the end of December. Both sides hoped to reach a trade deal by then to save hundreds of thousands of jobs that could be at stake if Brexit amounts to a brutal divorce on the brink.
But the talks have proven to be exceptionally difficult as the two sides refuse to compromise on three key issues: fishing, how to verify compliance with the agreement and the standards the UK must meet in order to export to the EU.
The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to retain access to lucrative EU markets, like any EU country, without agreeing to follow its rules. The EU fears that Britain will lower social and environmental standards and inject state money into UK industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival at the gates of the bloc.
Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and does not treat it as a sovereign and independent state.
If there is no agreement, companies on both sides of the English Channel will face tariffs and other trade barriers starting January 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the UK, whose economy is already reeling. under the coronavirus pandemic.
– Reported with Associated Press