The British government is watering down plans for full border checks on goods coming from the European Union to relieve pressure on businesses hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, U.K. media reported Friday.
The U.K. left the now-27-nation bloc on Jan. 31, but remains part of its single market for trade and other economic structures during a transition period that lasts until the end of the year. The two sides are trying to negotiate a free trade deal to kick in after that, but talks have stalled amid wide differences over key issues, from fishing rights to competition rules.
In any case, both the U.K. and the EU said Friday the deadline for an extension of the transition period, which was permitted under a U.K.-EU divorce agreement, has now passed.
EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit preparations ’’could not be clearer″ there would not be an extension although the EU was ready to grant one. Sefcovic and Gove co-chaired an EU-U.K. joint committee meeting on Friday.
“He explained that this was the promise which was given to the British citizens in the electoral campaign, and also Prime Minister (Boris) Johnson was very explicit on this issue,” Sefcovic said. “The only body which can decide about the possible extension of this period is the joint committee. We just concluded the proceedings so I take it as a definite conclusion of this discussion.”
In a message posted on Twitter, Gove “confirmed the U.K. will not extend the transition period.”
“On January 1, 2021, we will take back control and regain our political and economic independence.”
In February the U.K. government announced that goods coming from the EU would require inspections and customs declarations. But the Financial Times reported that Gove will announce a more “pragmatic and flexible” approach to border checks.
U.K. exports to the EU are still likely to face checks entering the bloc, however.
Speaking during a press conference, Sefcovic said some “positive results” were achieved during Friday’s meeting but insisted that “with some six months to go before the end of the transition period we still have lots of work to do.”
Britain’s economy is already reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Economic activity shrank by 20.4% in April, the first full month after a nationwide lockdown was introduced to slow the spread of the virus.
COVID-19 has also set back British plans to have new customs facilities and border officials in place by the end of this year. Businesses who have been affected may call on a customs attorney.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to hold talks with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and other top officials of the bloc by video call on Monday in a bid to break the impasse in trade talks.