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Impact of coronavirus on next round of UK-EU talks uncertain: Gove

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Discussions are taking place over how the spread of coronavirus could impact the second round of trade negotiations between the European Union and Britain next week, senior British minister Michael Gove said on Wednesday.

Asked by British lawmakers whether negotiations could be hit by the spread of the coronavirus and whether face-to-face meetings would continue, Gove said: “It is a live question … We have had indications today from Belgium that there may be specific public health concerns.”

A spokesman for the European Commission said the second round of talks was still scheduled to go ahead.

Gove also said that while Britain planned to produce a draft free trade agreement ahead of those talks, a decision had not yet made on whether this would be published. In Brussels, the bloc’s negotiating team was due to do the same on Thursday.

Time is scarce as the two sides say they want to seal a deal on their new relationship on everything from trade to fisheries and security before the end of the year, when their current, status-quo transition period after Brexit is due to end.

“We have just started. It’s important to pursue these negotiations in good spirit and mutual respect,” David McAllister, a German member of the European Parliament, who chairs the chamber’s Brexit committee, told Reuters on Wednesday.

The EU is pushing to keep Britain in closer alignment with the bloc after than London wants. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he was ready to default to World Trade Organization rules, which include tariffs and quotas.

He also refuses to negotiate a specific defense and security treaty with the EU, saying Britain prefers to rely on NATO. Both sides have said they will assess progress in June.

“June will be crucial. The British will have to finally decide if they want to stick to their ‘no’ to prolongation of the transition period,” McAllister said of a line that Johnson has repeatedly vowed to maintain.

A lawmaker in London’s parliament from the small Northern Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party said the coronavirus outbreak called for an extension to the talks, which both sides would need to agree to by June.

“It is reckless to suggest that in these circumstances, negotiations about future trading relationships can continue at the level required to secure a comprehensive resolution,” SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, whose party strongly favored the United Kingdom staying in the EU, said in a statement.

“The British government needs to swallow its pride and prepare the ground for an emergency extension to the transition period.”

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Alison Williams)