BRUSSELS — The Brexit trade negotiations have been suspended at a crucial stage because an EU negotiator has tested positive for the coronavirus, adding new uncertainty to the talks as a deadline looms.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that together with his U.K. counterpart, David Frost, "we have decided to suspend the negotiations at our level for a short period." He added that talks among lower ranking officials would continue.
Any long suspension of talks will make it even tougher for the negotiators to clinch a deal ahead of Jan. 1, when the existing trade agreements between the EU and Britain expire.
"We are discussing with them the implications for the negotiations. We have been, and will continue to, act in line with public health guidelines and to ensure the health and welfare of our teams," the British government said in a statement.
Time is running out as the EU will need about four weeks to complete the approval process of any deal agreed on by Barnier and his U.K. counterpart, David Frost.
Only on Wednesday a top European Union official said that trade talks with the United Kingdom still face "substantial work" that might spill over into next week.
The U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, but a transition period when EU rules apply to trade and other issues runs until the end of December. Both sides had hoped to get a trade deal by then to save hundreds of thousands of jobs that could be at stake if Brexit amounts to a brutal cliff edge divorce.
But talks have proven exceptionally difficult, with the two sides refusing to budge on three key issues - fisheries, how to check compliance of the deal and standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU.
The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to retain access to the EU's lucrative markets, much like any EU country, without agreeing to follow its rules. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards, and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc's doorstep.
Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state.
If there is no deal, businesses on both sides of the English Channel will face tariffs and other barriers to trade starting on Jan. 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the U.K., whose economy is already reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.