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Coronavirus has scored another victim, with today’s UK talks with the EU on a trade deal after the UK exits the EU being called off. The talks, the second round, were due to be held on 18-20 March, and were scheduled for London.

The initial contingency plan to use videoconferencing was abandoned. The impracticalities of making progress via video link with around a hundred EU negotiators in Michel Barnier’s EU team were seen by both sides as too much to contend with  ̶  and that was before the sharply worsening coronavirus infection rates in the EU and UK.     

These more serious matters aside, commentators are questioning now whether the EU talks can progress at the pace wanted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has demanded the UK leave the EU bloc by 31 December 2020 – with or without the much-sought-after EU free trade agreement (FTA). Barnier’s views on round one of talks earlier this month did not suggest a deal would be easy or even on time, given the evident “divergences.”

That would leave the UK facing an extension of the transition period, one of the four options available to the UK prime minister. But he would not have to make that call until 1 July – the deadline for an extension. Nothing will change soon in any case: the UK government has asserted that the transition period ends on 31 December, stressing “this is enshrined in UK law.”

In a statement yesterday, the government said that, in light of the latest guidance on coronavirus, “we will not formally be convening negotiating work strands tomorrow in the way we did in the previous round.” It added that the UK expects to share a draft FTA alongside the draft legal texts of a number of the standalone agreements in the near future still, as planned.

The next bilateral talks are scheduled for 6-8 April, in Brussels, but the UK says it will be exploring flexibility in the structure for the coming weeks, and looking at alternative ways to continue discussions, including video conferencing and/or conference calls.

Both sides remain fully committed to the negotiations, said the UK government, but questions are starting to emerge on whether, in the current pandemic, the UK would have the time, energy and resources to prepare this year for new trading conditions as a non-EU member post-2020. That raises the possibility of the UK ending the transition period without an FTA, should Johnson so insist.

But matters have become more fluid than could have even been imagined just four weeks ago. The UK, the EU and indeed the world are in a different place, and whispers are reportedly being heard by those on the fringes of the UK government that the 31 December transition deadline might not be as fixed as it was. No official confirmation of that will be heard anytime soon, however.

Delay Likely, But UK Medtech Will Separate

That is because the government is still pushing hard for its 1 January 1 2021 deadline. “That is beginning to look increasingly difficult,” said PB Consulting’s Dan Jones. “It is looking more and more likely that a delay will happen, even if just for a short time,” he told Medtech Insight. It is also likely that the UK will have some form of separation with the EU on medtech regulation, he said. On this, "it won’t be the perfect alignment we had hoped,” he said. The sense generally is that the UK wants a separation from EU institutions and regulations.

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