Both the EU and the UK are set to enter a crucial phase of trade talks, with two meetings scheduled between Boris Johnson and EU president Ursula von der Leyen before the end of June.
However, European trade commissioner Phil Hogan said the UK is showing “no sign” it wants trade talks with the EU to succeed during the transition period – and said negotiations between the two sides were continuing to move “slowly”.
Speaking to RTE on Thursday, Hogan said: “Despite the urgency and enormity of the negotiating challenge, I am afraid we are only making very slow progress in the Brexit negotiations.
“There is no real sign that our British friends are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so.
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“I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that COVID is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don’t want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame COVID for everything.”
He warned change was required – otherwise a combination of COVID-19 and Brexit could result in “an almighty blow to the UK economy later in the year".
Hogan also warned it could “spill over” to other countries, including Ireland.
The EU trade chief’s comments come after EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the UK is refusing to extend its transition period - and accused the government of “slowing down” discussions.
Brussels and the UK are currently negotiating a fresh trade agreement via video-telephone conferencing, due to restrictions on movement imposed on both sides of the Channel to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The transition period, during which the UK remains in the EU customs union and single market, is due to end on 31 December.
But the government said the period will not be extended beyond 2020, despite officials in London and Brussels admitting there has been little progress in the two rounds of formal talks held so far.
In the event a trade deal is not reached, Britain could seek a one or two year extension to the transition period – a prospect that ministers, including first minister Dominic Raab, have strongly ruled out.
Michael Gove earlier this week said it is “plain prudence” to stick with the current timetable despite the coronavirus pandemic.
He told MPs a “full and constructive” round of talks with the EU took place last month, with the next scheduled negotiations in the week beginning 11 May.
Gove also claimed that extending the post-Brexit negotiations and remaining under EU rules could hinder the UK’s efforts to deal with coronavirus.