In Light of Covid-19, Brexit Must Be Delayed

Amber Khan discusses the need for an extension to the Brexit transition period in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Presently, the UK has the highest excess death toll in Europe, the threat of the deepest recession in 300 years looms large and public trust in the Government has been all but eviscerated in light of the Dominic Cumming’s saga.  Easy then, to assume that we have reached the nadir. However, as the national focus has shifted from Brexit to the Covid-19 crisis, the Government is still surreptitiously pursuing it’s dogmatic approach to Brexit. While attention has been diverted the risk of the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, is at an all-time high.

This coming week sees the final round of talks before a summit in June to assess progress. There are only seven months left before we crash out of Europe without a deal and the 1st July deadline to request an extension is fast approaching. Despite the deadlock between the UK and the EU, the Government has maintained that an extension will categorically not happen. This pandering to Brexiteer sentiment by the Government is an anachronism given the global public health crisis we find ourselves in. Johnson has already been accused of letting Brexit ideology mar his Covid-19 response, as the government refused to take part in an EU scheme to procure much-needed medical equipment. Ardently perusing a no-deal Brexit is a political choice that, in the wake of the economic shock of the pandemic, will cause unnecessary further suffering and hardship.

The current deadlock stems from the fact that the EU wants a broad economic and trade agreement that will maintain close ties; whilst the UK is insisting on a basic zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal, alongside a whole host of UK specific arrangements relating to pharmaceuticals, finance, energy, fishing, and other services.

Exasperating the dramatic asymmetry in negotiating positions; the UK is refusing to shift its position on fishing, a level playing field for regulations (such as employment and environmental standards), the European Court of Justice, the European Convention on Human Rights, and governance of the deal.

Instead of seeking to reach a compromise with our EU counterparts, Johnson instead reverts back to what he knows best – obfuscating and shifting the blame. The thinking seems to be that the fallout from a no-deal Brexit can be attributed to the damage wreaked by Covid-19. In the event any dissent is voiced the finger can quickly be pointed towards the EU boogeyman.

But perhaps this approach hardly comes as a surprise from a populist Prime Minister whose entire election strategy centered around him being the man to cut the Gordian Knot of leaving the EU. Johnson duly filled his cabinet with Brexit ideologues, most graduates from the Ayn Rand school of philosophy, who have reliably failed to realise that the EU will not risk the integrity of the single market. Nor will it undermine its system of rules and legal governance to benefit the UK over its own interests.

We were infamously assured by Michael Gove that Britain “holds all the cards”. Words that ring hollow in the wake of three intense years of domestic brawling, revelations, and tough negotiations. Covid-19 has snatched away the very few cards Britain did hold. As the EU27 focus on their response to Covid-19, the impact of a no-deal Brexit might have become less of a concern. The pandemic has already broken existing supply chains and reduced demand and if EU companies have to rebuild, then re-shoring production from the UK to the EU27 might help to protect jobs and reduce costs

Domestically, the reverberations of Covid-19 are likely to have long-term damaging effects on the economy, employment, and poverty rates. It hardly seems the most opportune moment to break with our largest trading partner and the pound has already sunk to a two month low on the risk of another Brexit deadlock. Whilst most companies are focused on managing the impact of the Covid-19 crisis - a no-deal Brexit could tip many businesses over the edge, devastate our manufacturing sector, and exasperate poor job security. There are also the security and diplomatic ramifications to consider, in the context of a UK weakened by Covid-19.  Blue passports and curved bananas will provide little solace for those who lose their livelihoods.

Covid-19 has already unsettled an ambitious schedule to reach a deal, so now common sense and responsibility must prevail. The UK must delay Brexit by at least six months to properly focus on a response to Covid-19. A no-deal Brexit, whilst the UK is tackling the fallout from Covid-19, would surely be a pyrrhic victory for even the most ardent Brexiteer. Indeed, polling company Focaldata has 66 percent of voters supporting a delay, including 48 percent of Conservative voters and 45 percent of Brexit Party supporters. 

It will be politically difficult for Johnson to deviate from the Brexit hymn sheet, as a delay may be untenable for large swathes of his core base of supporters. But a Brexit delay does not have to undermine our negotiating position with Brussels nor is it a vehicle to simply ‘cancel’ Brexit. A delay would instead be a prudent act that ensures when the UK does leave Europe, it does so on favourable terms and at a time that will maximise our chances of a successful exit.

We are currently embroiled in the biggest peacetime crisis in modern history.  “Brexit Means Brexit” and “Get Brexit Done” are phrases hammered into the national psyche, but nebulous soundbites are not a substitute for true leadership. Good leadership will make the tough, necessary decisions needed, and put aside political doctrine, to save businesses and prioritise prosperity for the UK’s citizens in a time of national crisis.

To quote Johnson’s political hero, Winston Churchill – “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.”

Amber Khan works as a commercial law paralegal, and is studying for an LLM in public international law. She has written social and political commentary for a range of publications and is the current blog editor for the Young Fabians. She writes in a personal capacity.

She tweets at @Amberkhan___

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