THE European Commission’s chief trade negotiator has signalled he is “willing to listen” to any request for a Scotland-only extension to the current transition period.
Michel Barnier’s intervention comes after former First Minister Henry McLeish urged Nicola Sturgeon to seek an extension if the UK Government continues to insist it will not do so.
He agreed with the assessment that a No-deal Brexit would hamper the country’s recovery from the pandemic and that such a move would be highly damaging.
A Scottish-wide extension move would allow the country to remain in the single market and customs union once the current transition period ends on December 31 this year – and if the rest of the UK moves to trade on WTO rules.
Asked if the EU would consider a request for a Scotland-only extension to the implementation period, Barnier’s spokesman told The National the Commission was “willing to listen” but that negotiations had to respect the UK constitutional arrangements (under which the member state is the UK).
“The European Commission is willing to listen to a variety of institutional players and stakeholders.
“But negotiations will only take place with the UK Government, in full respect of the internal constitutional arrangements of the UK,” he said.
He underlined the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Barnier have both said that the EU is open to discussing an extension.
The fourth round of trade negotiations between the UK and EU ended last week with little progress made on reaching a trade deal.
Barnier accused Boris Johnson of “backtracking” on commitments he made during the Brexit process and cast doubt on the future of talks.
The European chief trade negotiator warned there had been “no significant progress”, adding: “I don’t think we can go on like this forever.”
David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, also admitted that “progress remains limited”.
Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, a request for the UK to extend the current transition period has to be agreed by July 1.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Barnier cited fishing as among the issues blocking a deal. The EU wants access to UK fishing waters in return for UK access to the single market and believe the arrangement was made in the political declaration agreed by the two sides.
READ MORE: UK Government will not extend Brexit transition period beyond December
The Brexit transition is the period agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement in which the UK is no longer a member of the EU but continues to be subject to EU rules, and remains a member of the single market and customs union. When the UK left the EU on January 31, it entered the transition period.
It allows the UK to continue its current relationship with the EU while the future trading relationship and security co-operation is negotiated, and is designed to provide time for that new relationship to be agreed while ensuring that business will only need to adapt to non-EU rules once the future deal is agreed.
The Withdrawal Agreement specifies the transition period will last until December 31 but it allows the UK and EU to extend it by up to two years. EU lawyers say once that July 1 deadline is missed, EU law makes it very difficult to agree to any extension.
Constitution Secretary Michael Russell referred to a Scottish Government report published last week which said the economy could experience a £3 billion hit if there is no extension.
He said: “It has never been clearer that the only way for Scotland to be in the EU with a direct voice, and able to avoid the long-term damage of Brexit, is to become an independent country.
He added: “The UK Government must urgently seek an extension to avoid a further entirely unnecessary hit to the economy, which has already been hit hard by coronavirus.”