Boris Johnson on Monday resisted calls for an extension of the Brexit transition period despite border chaos on the Dover-Calais route and warnings that the worst will follow on January 1.
Truck’s driver were stuck on either side of the Channel following the decision taken Sunday to close one of the world’s largest trade routes for 48 hours by France amid concerns over a new strain of Covid-19 identified in the United Kingdom.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was now “imperative” for Mr Johnson to seek an extension of the transition, which expires at the end of the year when the UK is about to leave the country. single market and the EU customs union.
She said the strain released by the mutant variant of the coronavirus – including travel bans imposed by EU countries that have crippled trade – warrants an extension.
“The new Covid strain – and its various implications – means that we are facing a deeply serious situation, and it demands our 100% attention,” she tweeted. “It would be unacceptable to make it worse with Brexit.”
But Downing Street insisted there would be no extension, stressing that the option to seek a longer transition expired in early July. “The transition period will end on December 31 – that remains our position,” a spokesperson for Mr Johnson said.
He added that Britain would exit the transition at the end of the year with or without a free trade agreement. MPs would be able to vote on any deal before December 31.
The European Commission has also repeatedly ruled out any extension, saying the option legally expired at the end of June when Britain refused to take an option to apply for one that was included in its divorce treaty with the EU.
Latest news on coronaviruses
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
EU officials have said trying to extend now would be fraught with legal, political and practical difficulties. Officials said there would need to be a new treaty that should be sent for ratification to all 27 EU member states. The UK is also expected to accept a new financial contribution to the EU budget.
It was “impossible to do it quickly” and “a political denial in the UK” said an EU official.
But speculation in the UK is a sign of growing tension as time presses for the talks. Negotiators were still at work in Brussels on Monday, with questions relating to EU fishing rights in UK waters and the terms of a “level playing field” for businesses still pending.
EU officials said on Monday morning they were awaiting comments from the UK on a new fish offer, and that drafting work continued on the issue of equal opportunities.
Downing Street has admitted that talks on a trade deal could last until Christmas, with parliamentary business leaders preparing to remind MPs to approve a deal between Christmas and New Years.
The European Parliament has ruled out voting in favor of ratifying any deal before the end of the year after the Sunday midnight deadline for a deal was passed. MEPs said on Monday that there was not enough time for the review; Brussels is now exploring the legal option of putting any agreement in “provisional application” before a ratification vote.
MEPs explored all the different legal options – including the difficulties of a transitional extension – in a closed-door meeting on Monday.
Uncertainty over the fate of the talks is increasing the burden on companies struggling with Covid-19 travel bans. Truck drivers have been urged by UK authorities not to travel to Kent ports and to increase queues.
Britain’s exit from the single market and the EU’s customs union on January 1 will create new trade frictions, such as customs checks and veterinary checks, which companies have warned are not prepared.
Failure to agree on a trade deal would make matters worse, adding tariffs and quotas to the new trade border. The absence of an agreement could also remove the goodwill necessary to manage checks at bottlenecks, in particular on the Dover-Calais axis.
Tobias Ellwood, former defense minister, urged Mr Johnson to extend the schedule 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 conditions of prosperity and security,” he tweeted. “If there’s no deal with NY, let’s do what’s best for the UK and put the clock on hold.”
EU officials have said a deal could be applied provisionally from January 1 without the European Parliament having to vote. This would save MEPs time to carry out an in-depth examination of a text which would have to be around 1,000 pages if agreed.