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Brexit trade talks suspended after EU negotiator contracts COVID-19

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European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier leaves the Conference Centre in London, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020
European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom Michel Barnier leaves the Conference Centre in London, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020   -   Copyright  Frank Augstein/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Top-level talks over a post-Brexit trade deal were suspended on Thursday after an EU negotiator tested positive for COVID-19.

It added uncertainty to discussions that were already under pressure amid a looming deadline.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier announced the suspension on Twitter but said lower-ranking officials would continue discussions in the interim.

Any long suspension of talks will make it tougher for a deal to be reached ahead of January 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.

London and Brussels are still divided over three key issues: fisheries, how to check compliance of the deal and standards the UK 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 January 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the UK, whose economy is already reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK left the EU on January 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 protect hundreds of thousands of jobs and businesses that could suffer if Brexit leads to a sharp end to existing trade relations.