Boris Johnson on Monday resisted calls for an extension to the Brexit transition period despite border chaos on the Dover-Calais route and warnings that worse will follow on January 1.
Truck drivers were stuck on each side of the Channel following the decision on Sunday to close one of the world’s biggest trade routes for 48 hours by France amid concern over a new strain of Covid-19 identified in the UK.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said it was now “imperative” that Mr Johnson sought an extension to the transition, which expires at the end of the year, when the UK is set to leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
She said that the strain unleashed by the mutant variant of the coronavirus — including the travel bans imposed by EU countries that have paralysed trade — justified an extension.
“The new Covid strain — and the various implications of it — means we face a profoundly serious situation, and it demands our 100 per cent attention,” she tweeted. “It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit.”
But Downing Street insisted that there would be no extension, pointing out that the possibility to seek a longer transition expired at the start of July. “The transition period will end on December 31 — that remains our position,” a spokesman for Mr Johnson said.
He added that Britain would leave the transition at the end of the year with or without a free trade agreement. MPs would be given a chance to vote on any deal before December 31.
The European Commission has also repeatedly ruled out any extension, saying that the possibility legally expired at the end of June when Britain refused to take up an option to request one that was baked into its divorce treaty with the EU.
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EU officials said that trying to extend now would be fraught with legal, political and practical difficulties. The officials said it would require a new treaty that would need to be sent for ratification to all of the bloc’s 27 member states. The UK would also be expected to agree a new financial contribution to the EU budget.
It was “impossible to do it quickly” and “a no-go politically in the UK” said one EU official.
But the speculation in the UK is a sign of mounting tension as time runs out for talks. Negotiators were still at work in Brussels on Monday, with issues relating to EU fishing rights in UK waters and “level playing field” conditions for business still unresolved.
EU officials said on Monday morning that they were waiting for feedback from the UK on a new offer on fish, and that drafting work continued on the issue of the level playing field.
Downing Street has admitted that talks on a trade deal could run into Christmas, with parliamentary business managers preparing to recall MPs to approve a deal in the gap between Christmas and New Year.
The European Parliament has ruled out voting to ratify any deal before the end of the year after a midnight Sunday deadline for an agreement was missed. MEPs said on Monday that insufficient time had been left for scrutiny; Brussels is now exploring the legal option of bringing any agreement into “provisional application” ahead of a ratification vote.
MEPs explored all the different legal options — including the difficulties around a transition extension — at a closed-door meeting on Monday.
The uncertainty over the fate of the talks is adding to burdens for businesses now also grappling with the Covid-19 travel bans. Truck drivers were urged by UK authorities not to travel to ports in Kent and add to mounting queues.
Britain’s exit from the EU single market and customs union on January 1 will create new trade frictions, such as customs verifications and veterinary checks, which businesses have warned they are not prepared for.
Failure to agree a trade deal would worsen the situation, adding tariffs and quotas to the new trade border. The absence of a deal could also remove goodwill needed to manage checks at choke points, particularly on the Dover-Calais route.
Tobias Ellwood, former defence minister, urged Mr Johnson to extend the timetable for talks on a new deal into the new year to allow them to take place in a calmer environment.
“These are far from ideal conditions to rationally determine our future prosperity and security terms,” he tweeted. “If there’s no deal by NY let’s do what’s best for the UK and pause the clock.”
EU officials said that a deal could be provisionally applied from January 1 without the EU parliament needing to vote. That would buy time for MEPs to conduct detailed scrutiny of a text which is expected to run to around 1,000 pages if there is an agreement.