Negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship began on 3 March. They came to an abrupt halt due to the coronavirus outbreak. This means the UK and EU have been unable to keep to a previously agreed timetable for the talks. 

This Insight provides an overview of the negotiating timetable and what has happened so far.

The transition period 

The revised UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) in October 2019 was accompanied by a non-binding Political Declaration (PD). The PD set out a framework for the future relationship. Together they provide an outline timetable for the future relationship negotiations. 

The WA provides for a transition period. During the transition, EU law (with a few exceptions) continues to apply to the UK. The transition period ends on 31 December 2020. It can be extended “for up to one or two years” but this requires agreement by both the UK and EU to do so by 1 July 2020.

Negotiating the future relationship agreements 

The PD sets out the shared intent of the UK and EU to get future relationship agreements in place by the end of 2020. This would be with the aim of implementing the new relationship as soon as the transition period ends. The PD also provides for a high level UK-EU meeting to take place in June 2020 to assess progress. 

The PD also sets out dates by which other objectives should be achieved. It commits the UK and EU to using their best endeavours to conclude and ratify a fisheries agreement by 1 July 2020. They should also conduct equivalence assessments for financial services by the end of June 2020. And they are expected to reach data adequacy decisions by the end of 2020. 

Timeline for the negotiations 

On 3 February Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, set out a timeline for negotiations. The proposed timeline envisages negotiations being concluded by 15-16 October 2020. That is the date set for the European Council meeting – the summit of EU leaders.

The proposed timeline would ensure that any agreement could be ratified by both sides and be ready for implementation by the end of December. Negotiation of outstanding issues could then continue in 2021. 

A European Commission timeline from January 2020 to January 2021

Terms of reference for the negotiations 

The UK Government and the EU published initial terms of reference for the negotiations on 28 February. These set out a timetable of five negotiating rounds. Each round is expected to last three or four days and take place every two to three weeks. A timetable for the first five rounds up to the middle of May 2020 was published. Further rounds were to be mutually agreed. A high-level meeting was planned for June. At this meeting the UK and EU were expected to take stock of progress “with the aim of agreeing actions to move forward in negotiations”. 

Each negotiating round begins and ends with a plenary session at chief or deputy-chief negotiator level. In between the plenaries, talks on specific issues take place simultaneously in eleven different negotiating groups. The rounds are supposed to alternate between London and Brussels. 

The negotiations so far

The first round of negotiations took place from 2 to 5 March in Brussels. Statements from both the UK and EU described the talks as “constructive”. They said that there was agreement in some areas. But there were differences in areas including: governance, “level playing field”, fisheries, and judicial and police co-operation in criminal matters.

These differences were expected given the EU and UK negotiating objectives set out in detailed documents the previous week. These positions were examined in more detailed in our research briefing, The UK-EU future relationship negotiations: process and issues.

With several EU countries already in lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, the second round of negotiations scheduled for 18-20 March did not take place. Michel Barnier announced that week that he had tested positive for the virus. The UK’s chief negotiator David Frost also self-isolated after showing symptoms of the virus. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital with the virus on 5 April.

There have been discussions about recommencing the talks via videoconferencing. So far, these have not been possible. The third round of talks scheduled for this week have also not taken place. 

The European Commission did publish a draft treaty text on 18 March covering all aspects of the EU’s envisaged future relationship with the UK. The UK Government has also tabled draft texts, but these have not been made public and do not cover all areas of the proposed relationship.  

UK position on extending the transition period

When it set out its approach to the negotiations in February, the Government said it hoped to reach a broad outline of an agreement with the EU by the time of the June high-level meeting. If an agreement did not appear likely by June, it would consider switching its attention away from the negotiations. Instead it would focus “solely on continuing domestic preparations to exit the transition period in an orderly fashion”. 

The Government has repeatedly stated that it will not agree to an extension of the transition period. This was a Conservative manifesto commitment. The Government has legislated to prohibit itself from agreeing an extension with the EU. The new Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, has said keeping to the deadline of ending the transition on 31 December is “unlikely”. There have been calls by several organisations, other opposition parties and MEPs to extend the deadline. 

On 18 March the Prime Minister said that he had no intention of changing the legislation that prevents the Government from agreeing an extension.

Further reading

The UK-EU future relationship negotiations: process and issues, House of Commons Library

The UK-EU future relationship negotiations: Level playing field , House of Commons Library

Brexit next steps: The transition period, House of Commons Library

Brexit: What happens next?, House of Commons Library

About the author: Stefano Fella is a researcher in the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

Photo: Habib Ayoade on Unsplash.