EU's Barnier has coronavirus, threatening Brexit talks

Alex PIGMAN with Alice RITCHIE in London
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"I'm as well as I can be, strictly confined to my home," Barnier said. "Morale is good"

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has tested positive for the coronavirus, increasing pressure on Britain to extend a trade talks deadline beyond the end of the year.

The 69-year-old Frenchman announced on Thursday that he has the COVID-19 strain, though he insisted that he feels fine and would confine himself at home in France for as long as it is necessary.

Even before the revelation, Britain was under huge pressure to delay its December 31 deadline to reach a trade deal with Europe, especially given the economic chaos brought on by the global pandemic.

The talks began a month after Britain officially left the EU on January 31, and six weeks later both sides are still leagues apart on how they envision future ties, with tempers often flaring.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is steadfast that Britain will no longer obey EU rules at the end of 2020, the completion of a transition period during which London must follow EU law.

While Johnson has the power to extend it by one or two years, he has passed a UK law compelling Britain to wind up the transition this year.

In a video message, a healthy-looking Barnier made no reference to the impact of his predicament on Brexit talks.

"I tested positive yesterday for COVID-19. I'm as well as I can be, strictly confined to my home," he said, speaking in France.

"I'm fine, morale is good," the former French foreign minister added, wearing a sweater and speaking in front of a cluttered bookshelf.

Messages of support poured in from across Europe as well as Britain, where a government spokesman said: "We of course send Michel Barnier our best wishes."

Barnier's boss, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, also sent a warm message, wishing him a swift recovery.

- Delay 'banished' -

But the negotiations themselves were already a victim of the virus when EU and Britain cancelled this week's round of talks in London.

Both sides were to meet intensively through June, before an EU-UK summit that would take stock of progress and decide the best way forward.

Brussels has already warned that the timetable was too tight to reach a meaningful deal, but calls for a delay, even after the emergence of the coronavirus, have fallen on deaf ears.

The idea of a postponement "has been banished, it's been done!" Johnson thundered at a press conference on Wednesday.

In normal circumstances, a delay would be a major embarrassment for the British government, which has promised to fully leave the EU by the end of the year come what may.

But key officials and diplomats in Brussels now believe that Britain might be left with little choice as Europe grinds to a halt, viewing the virus crisis as the only priority.

"Dear Boris Johnson, what about putting pride and promises aside to join all our forces in the fight against COVID19 instead?" asked German MEP Bernd Lange, the head of European Parliament's powerful trade committee.

"In these times no one cares about deadlines for a trade deal," he added.

Each side has recently drawn up its own draft of the deal in an effort to expose the yawning differences.

The EU has made its public, and it includes requirements that Britain must not diverge far from EU rules if it wants to have easy access to the bloc's economy.

But Johnson's government says it wants a simple free trade agreement between "sovereign equals" and is prepared to sacrifice access to the EU market in exchange for full freedom to write laws and regulations.

If left unaddressed, the split could lead to a bare-bones deal on tariffs or even no deal, piling even more pain on the European economy.