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The Conservative Party leader secured an amended withdrawal agreement with the European Union last year, before being faced with the uphill task of getting it voted through Parliament by MPs still strongly opposed to the UK’s departure from the bloc. But Boris Johnson was able to successfully achieve this after crushing his rivals in December’s general election, with the Tories securing a huge 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, and was then able to deliver on his manifesto promise to “get Brexit done” on January 31. The focus then switched to the beginning of trade talks between the UK and EU in March, but discussions are edging towards collapse, with both sides exchanging insults over each other’s negotiating strategy and the lack of “real progress” during four separate rounds of talks.
Tensions have been magnified with the Prime Minister insisting a trade deal must be signed before the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020.
The EU, and in particular chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, have appealed for the UK to extend this beyond the end of this year, but Mr Johnson and his own chief Brexit negotiator David Frost are refusing to budge.
Speaking in Brussels following the conclusion of the latest round of talks, Mr Barnier said the “door is still open” for the UK to seek an extension to the transition period to allow more time for negotiations to continue.
The Prime Minister has been praised for maintaining his hard-line stance in the face of mounting pressure from the EU, but one political expert warned any change in this position would threaten Mr Johnson’s leadership and seriously tarnish his reputation.
When asked if the Prime Minister should extend the transition period beyond December 31, 2020, Ban Harris-Quinney, Chairman of the Bow Group think tank, simply said: “Not if he wants to keep his job and have any positive legacy.”
Wyn Grant, a Political Scientist and Politics Professor at the University of Warwick, explained there is an element of “risk” in extending the transition period.
He told this website: “The risk attached to extending the transition period is that the gulf between the two sides is too big to be bridged however much time is available, even though the EU seems to be shifting a little on fisheries.
“It may be that all that is possible is bare bones agreement at the last minute that avoids the worst disruption.
“As far as Boris Johnson is concerned, his key political pledge was to complete Brexit and it is difficult for him to step back from that.”
But Alistair Jones, Associate Professor in Politics and a University Teacher Fellow at De Montfort University, warned it would be a “mistake” for Mr Johnson not to extend the transition period.
He said: “As things stand, he is not going to extend the transition period. This is a mistake.
“The UK economy is going to contract by something in the vicinity of 10% as a direct result of the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, there was an expectation the UK economy would contract by over 3% through leaving the EU. This is now going to be far more.
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“Extending the transition period will enable all UK businesses that export to the EU, and those which import from the EU, to continue their current operations. This will help them to recover, especially in conjunction with the support being detailed by Rishi Sunak.
“A clear narrative, with a Parliament united in supporting such an extension, would provide excellent optics for Johnson, especially as it could be shown to be in the national interest for the short term.
“For the longer term, the UK is still leaving the EU. Getting that deal in place for a future trade agreement would be beneficial all round.”
Following the conclusion of the latest round of trade talks on Friday, Mr Barnier again lamented the lack of progress being made in trade negotiations, accusing the UK of continuously looking “to distance themselves” from the political declaration.
He told a press conference in Brussels both sides are still “very far” from reaching agreement on the level playing field, nuclear safety, anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism funding, and a “overarching institutional framework” for the future relationship.
Mr Barnier again lashed out at Britain, and said: “In all areas, the UK continues to backtrack under commitments undertaken in the political declaration, including on fisheries.
“We cannot and will not accept this backtracking on the political declaration.”
UK counterpart Mr Frost said they would have to “intensify and accelerate” the process if there was to be any chance of an agreement.
The talks had been intended to lay the ground for a high-level summit later this month to access the progress, with Mr Johnson previously threatening away from the negotiating table if talks had not reached a satisfactory level.
The summit will again take place by video call and is expected to involve Mr Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.
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