Although Brexit is the name that within the UK Government can’t be spoken the hard truth is that it is not yet done and the doing may prove a messy business. The cliff that looms on 31 December is coming closer. What degree of readiness will suffice to save a crash?
The COVID-19 pandemic is more than a spanner in the works. It is a murky cloud that seriously obscures the way forward to completing the transition to Britain’s future trade and economic relations with the EU. At the best of times negotiating this transition could take anywhere between one and ten years. As it is there remains just two months to determine whether the negotiations should extend beyond 31 December or whether whatever is by then in the bag will get it through regardless of the consequences. See: https://johnmenadue.com/andrew-farran-wither-brexit-and-the-trade-system-under-covid-19/ and: https://johnmenadue.com/andrew-farran-gary-sampson-brexiting-in-brussels-high-noon-awaits/
Influential voices in Europe have been calling for an extension, reflecting the advice of experienced trade negotiators that technical difficulties alone would make concluding a deal on the multiple issues involved within a few months impossible. The EU’s negotiating text itself consists of 441 pages; the British one, about half that but with annexes. Notwithstanding, the British announced this week that negotiations which resumed by video link on 20th April will continue by similar means on 11th May and 1st June.
The UK position reflects the clear previous statement of Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there will be no extension – prior to his emergence in recent days from a CODIN-19 viral attack, now convalescing at his Chequers retreat. Has he had sufficient time to reflect on this stance, given the multitude of sobering facts. Or is he proceeding on a predetermined course, adopting an expression linked to another politician, of “crash or crash through”. If the latter is indeed immutable policy then no amount of extended negotiations would make any practical difference.
Are the parties that far apart after having lived together for over 30 years in a high degree of intimacy? Have they got to know each other too well, retaining insurmountable mutual suspicions. Boris wants free trade with no tariffs or quotas. The EU wants a level playing field with no cheating on subsidies or lax observance of principles and product standards. For the EU this can be achieved by both parties accepting the jurisdiction in certain cases of the European Court. Boris will have none of that. In any event, the regulatory environment and administrative hurdles created by any indecisiveness on either side will create a lasting nightmare for traders and citizens alike.
Then there are deep differences on fisheries – exclusive zones and quotas which is a double edged sword for Britain for while it might catch the fish it seeks it sells most of that catch to the EU. Agriculture presents other problems where quotas cannot be avoided, but where UK/EU adjustments can have adverse effects for third parties under the WTO and would require compensation (assuming that Trump’s America hasn’t killed off the WTO along with the WHO meanwhile).
Then there is the services trade, not least financial services, which constitute some 80% of the British economy and export earnings. Which of the two has most to lose here? How would a world trying to overcome the adverse affects of COVID-19 cope if transportation issues concerning aviation and freight, let alone people, were left unresolved at the bottom of the negotiations cliff?
The fact is that putting these matters on foot will require sustained political engagement and significant compromise. Bluffing doesn’t solve issues. There has not been a previous case of a long-standing member of a customs union/common market involving a substantial portion of world trade upping sticks and walking out, leaving in its wake a host of substantive questions up in the air. Not least of these will be, yet again, an Irish question. Will Northern Ireland be outside the EU customs area, as it must, in which case how will the two parts of Ireland coexist? The answer will be: without Britain.
The question is whether Britain can sustain damage of these dimensions in addition to a once-in-a-century pandemic and not end up devastated? What government could survive this if the general belief was that it was largely responsible because of dogma and obstinacy on its part?
I have a feeling that Boris, having risen from the almost dead, will see this in a different light and yield on the negotiating time-frame very soon.
For both Britain’s and Europe’s sakes one must hope he will.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade policy adviser and law academic – who has been on the trail of Brexit for some time