Michel Barnier in London last week for the trade negotiations which are now switching to Brussels. – AP
British Brexit negotiators arrived in Brussels under the threat of lockdown on Thursday for trade negotiations in one of the EU countries hardest hit by the second wave of coronavirus.
Brussels is at the epicentre of rocketing infection rates in Belgium that are second only to the Czech Republic in the EU and far outstrip the UK’s.
Belgium is expected to announce that it will follow France and Germany back into lockdown on Friday. UK-EU Trade talks resume on Friday in Brussels and will continue through the weekend as both sides race to agree a trade deal before mid-November and avoid a damaging no deal Brexit.
Future negotiations could be held exclusively in London, although this is understood to be unlikely, or be shifted to cumbersome online video conferences, depending on how strict the Belgian lockdown is.
UK-EU negotiations restarted in London last Friday after the European Commission promised Britain daily, intensified talks. They were extended until Wednesday in the hope the public health situation in Brussels would improve.
Instead it got worse. Belgium reported 1424.2 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants over the last two weeks, and rising death and hospitalisation rates on Thursday.
In Britain the rate is 424.1, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Contamination figures in Belgium are ten times worse than in Germany and significantly worse than in France, where non-essential travel was banned this week.
Brussels has already closed all its bars and cafes and introduced a curfew. Masks are mandatory everywhere outside and working from home is strongly recommended.
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist advising the Belgian government since the start of the pandemic, said earlier measures had failed. He tweeted, “Like in our neighbouring countries, it is time for us to hit the emergency brake: lockdown.”
David Frost and Michel Barnier, the two chief negotiators, will discuss the impact of the new Belgian coronavirus restrictions, which are expected to last a month and beyond the mid-November deadline, and make a joint decision on the next steps.
“If it is a full lockdown, then we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” an EU official said, “The lockdown would have to close the borders and prevent us meeting in person for it to have an impact.”
The UK and EU could decide to continue talks as planned, move them online or to London. The joint principles for the talks allow for flexibility in reacting to the unpredictable virus, sources said.
Both sides have committed to prioritising “their duty of care to the individuals in negotiating teams”. “Both parties will give due regard to the evolving Covid-19 situation, the practicalities of travel, and, in particular, the different levels of risk in both London and Brussels,” the joint principles read.
British travellers to Belgium must quarantine for a fortnight on their return to the UK but the negotiators have special diplomatic exemptions from the requirement.
The atmosphere over the past week of negotiations was described as “relatively constructive” by sources.
Some progress was made over the last days, the Telegraph understands, but there was no breakthrough on the major obstacles of fishing, the level playing field guarantees or the deal’s enforcement.
A joint secretariat taking in progress from 11 different negotiating streams has been set up. It oversees a consolidated master text that will form the basis of the future trade deal.
The trade negotiations were forced online when the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March but both sides admitted it was hard to make real progress in the virtual talks, which made it tough to build a rapport.
Lord Frost and Mr Barnier were both forced to quarantine in the first months of the pandemic. Face to face negotiations eventually resumed in both London and Brussels with strict hygiene and social distancing measures in place.