Friday 20 March 2020

Extending the transition period: Johnson’s chance to lead

As foreshadowed in my post two weeks ago and amplified in last week’s post (most of which remains relevant, although last week feels almost a lifetime ago) the key, pressing and now really sole Brexit issue is whether the coronavirus pandemic is going to lead to an extension of the transition period. If so, that is going to have to be applied for by the end of June. Hence it really is a pressing issue in the context of the near certainty that all of the current coronavirus restrictions - if not even more stringent ones - in both the UK and EU countries will still be in place by then. Attempts to run this week’s scheduled negotiations remotely foundered, and they were cancelled. Subsequently, Michel Barnier tested positive for the virus.

In any logical world an extension would be a no-brainer (£), and clearly in the interests of both the UK and the EU. Yet, as a very good discussion of the issue by Luke McGee of CNN shows, it presents a massive political dilemma for Boris Johnson. This flows directly from his own insistence that there will be no extension but, beneath that, from the implacable opposition to it from within his own party. The Brexit Ultras do not work on normal logic, and could punish any backsliding on the date. As has been the case throughout the Brexit saga – but with consequences which are now more dramatic than ever - these diehards have a hold on the fate of the whole country which is quite disproportionate to their numbers.

Brexit still matters

For as long as the current timetable remains in place, it is both legitimate and necessary to go on talking about Brexit. It is becoming increasingly common to hear it said that, in the face of coronavirus, Brexit is unimportant and neither it nor the extension question should be discussed. That is an inane proposition unless or until the government pause and postpone. For without that happening Brexit will still be underway and decisions being made that will affect us for a very long time. It’s entirely asinine to say simultaneously that Brexit must go ahead despite coronavirus but that we shouldn’t discuss it because of coronavirus.

In any case, it’s perfectly reasonable to recall that Brexit is making coronavirus more difficult for the UK to handle. The number of nurses from the EU who have been put off working in Britain since the Referendum is one obvious example. The potential delays it will cause access to a future vaccine, mentioned in my last post and analysed in more detail by Professor Martin McKee and others this week, is another. The reluctance of the government to avail itself of the EU’s accelerated procurement process (£) for ventilators and testing kits is a third (even if it is dropped, that reluctance is telling).

The latter example, in particular, bespeaks of the continuation – despite coronavirus – of the Brexiter’s enthrallment with their culture war. Witness the glee with which Nigel Farage and others greeted the UK being exempted from the US’s European travel ban. It was mistaken in its own right (the initial ban was on Schengen area countries, not EU countries per se) but in any case the ban was rapidly extended to include the UK. But the point – as with all the articles suggesting that coronavirus somehow justifies Brexit (£) – is that, once again, Brexiters cannot stop making bogus claims as if they are still campaigning for Brexit, rather than accepting its real consequences.

Extension isn’t about stopping Brexit

Stuck in that culture war groove, many Brexiters are wrongly treating the growing calls for an extension as some kind of remainer rearguard action against Brexit. That’s total, paranoid nonsense. As of 31 January that battle was over. The issue is how Brexit is done and the need for a common sense recognition that coronavirus has massively reshaped the political and economic landscape. Even before its economic effects have fed through into official data the UK economy was at a virtual standstill and manufacturing exports at a three year low (£). There is only so much damage that can be absorbed in such a short period – this week’s dramatic sterling falls show how coronavirus and Brexit are interacting to inflict further damage - and ending the transition, whether with a deal or without, at the end of the year will increase it totally unnecessarily.

I suppose it is possible that, in the end, the magnitude of government economic intervention to mitigate the effects of coronavirus may also cushion the additional Brexit damage. But, even if so, the effects of post-Brexit terms of trade will matter for many years. Equally importantly, so will the long-term effects of all the other arrangements for regulation and cooperation (or otherwise) over security, education, energy and so on.

Nor is the issue just about mitigating the simultaneous economic effects of coronavirus and the end of the transition period. It is also about the lack of governmental capacity to undertake the negotiations at the present time, as civil servants, rightly, prioritise work on coronavirus. As is widely remarked upon, the coronavirus measures are the biggest set of social restrictions since the Second World War. It just can’t make sense to try to undertake at the same time the biggest re-configuration of international economic and political relations since the same date. For that matter, governmental capacity within the EU is also heavily circumscribed by the coronavirus crisis (and, note, the EU also has the right to apply for transition extension, seeking UK agreement).

The same is true for businesses. They now face all of the damage and disruption of coronavirus whilst also having to prepare for whatever the end of the transition period may bring (here’s Professor Anand Menon, giving Select Committee evidence to that effect this week). It’s not even just a matter of dealing with two independent events, but of the trade-offs between them. As one business leader, quoted by the Daily Telegraph’s Europe Editor, Peter Foster, pithily put it “am I supposed to be making ventilators or hiring customs agents?”

Beyond the capacity of the British economy and polity to deal with Brexit and coronavirus simultaneously lies another important consideration. The magnitude of the virus crisis is such that there is really no way of knowing what the British, European and global landscape is going to look like once it is over. In the absence of that knowledge, the kind of relationship that Britain is going to need with the EU, and vice versa, is also unknowable. Even if it could be done, any deal struck this year may be completely unsuited to those future needs. Why rush into it blind?

There’s nothing magical about 31 December

Overall, the key point is that there is absolutely nothing magical about the date of 31 December 2020. It has been made talismanic by Johnson and the Brexiters, but it can be unmade. Yes, it is ‘enshrined in law’ (by the Withdrawal Agreement Act), but that could be re-legislated. In any case it only arises as the legacy of May’s deal, and, at that time, was linked to the original departure date of 29 March 2019 which would have allowed for a much longer transition period. It also arises from synchronizing with the EU budget cycle, but it would seem strange if Brexiters regarded that as sacrosanct.

As things stand, there are now numerous well-sourced reports that the UK will seek an extension. Yet this continues to be publicly denied by Boris Johnson and other ministers. The government is pushing on with the Trade Bill (though a straw in the wind may be that it does not give a date for the end of the transition period). Indeed according to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab this week the coronavirus crisis strengthens the case for sticking to the current timetable. This amounts, as the MP Ben Bradshaw put it, to “reckless insanity”. And David Davis (£) – the former Brexit Secretary who is invariably wrong about Brexit – after repeating the usual nonsense about the deal that Donald Tusk supposedly promised proposes that since coronavirus will depress cross-border trade it will make it easier to handle customs delays. About the best that can be said of that is that it shows that he has finally grasped that the UK is not going to have the “exact same benefits” as an EU member.

The sheer wart-hog obstinacy of the likes of Raab and Davis is beyond belief. I get that they want to leave the EU, and they’ve got their way. But faced with this unprecedented crisis, with an entire country and continent in or close to lock down, how can they not even concede the existence of the case for delaying the settlement of future terms? Of all the mad and irresponsible stances the Ultras have taken in recent years, this is surely the worst and most dangerous.

When not if?

Even so, I agree with the many commentators who think it almost certain that an extension will be applied for and agreed, perhaps badged in terms of ‘Britain’s Special Status’ or similar, which will appeal to some voters. It will most likely be announced when the coronavirus outbreak is at its height, so as to attract less attention and also to mute Ultras’ objections. If so, the key issue to watch will be whether a one-year or two-year extension is sought. Either is possible under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement but – at least in principle – the decision can’t then be changed. That is, one year can’t later be upgraded to two (though I wonder if it came to it whether it would really be impossible to find a way), although two years could be truncated were a deal to be reached.

If the UK only seeks a one-year extension, it is unlikely to be enough (especially as we have no way of knowing how long the coronavirus crisis will last) and the inference will be that it has been kept to a minimum to, once again, try to placate the Ultras. If so, it will be folly. Much better, if there is a political hit to be taken for extending, to extract the maximum ‘reward’ for it in terms of time for manoeuvre (not that even two years gives much breathing space). But, more likely, the supposedly easier route will be taken and, before we know it, that new deadline will be looming.

Not, of course, that there is absolute certainty that there will be an extension. Despite, as stated above, its obvious logic, if these Brexit years have taught us anything it is that normal logic no longer applies. But perhaps that should be refined a little. Whilst Brexit Ultras may not work on normal logic, they do have a logic of their own in which expectation of betrayal is central. Thus they fear that, even now, Brexit might somehow be reversed and that an extension to the transition period might allow that.

I do not think they are right, and my reasons for advocating an extension are not animated by an expectation that it will have that outcome. In any case, reversal would presumably have to mean an application to rejoin – there is no other mechanism now that the UK has left. Even so, it’s not inconceivable that post-coronavirus the world will look so different that Brexit is very widely seen by the electorate as a terrible mistake and rejoining gains popular support. Yet that is just as likely – possibly even more likely – to be so if a botched deal (or no deal) is rushed through as it is if an extension occurs. Indeed Brexiters should be very wary about this. For whilst there is currently little public clamour for an extension, if we begin to emerge from the coronavirus crisis only to immediately face a fresh Brexit crisis toward the end of the year the backlash would be substantial.

Johnson’s chance to lead?

Given this and the near inevitability of extension, Boris Johnson actually has an opportunity – and also a need – to make a virtue of that necessity. Rather than have it forced on him by events in a few weeks’ time, he could advocate it now. In the process he could throw down the gauntlet to the ERG and, in the circumstances, very likely face them down. Thereby, he would have a reasonable claim to have transcended the gulf between leavers and remainers and be governing in the interests of the whole country.

More than anything, his biggest challenge now, which will likely define his political legacy, is to gain public trust and to repay it. Whilst he is remembered as the man who repeatedly fronted the £350M Brexit bus lie, despite the corrections of the UK Statistics Authority, his pronouncements about “sending the virus packing in twelve weeks” come across as more dodgy sloganeering and appeals to “follow the science” ring hollow. But if he were to tell the truth about the need for an extension, he might finally move beyond being the Brexit campaign leader to being the ‘nation in crisis’ leader he clearly craves to be seen as.

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