Friday, 24 April 2020

Coronavirus and Brexit: the connections and their consequences

It is now increasingly clear that there is a complex web of interconnections between Brexit and responses to the coronavirus crisis. I have been writing about that on this blog since the beginning of March (and especially here and here) which I mention not as a boast for any perspicacity on my part but just to avoid repeating too much of what was said in those posts.

There are two ways of thinking about those interconnections. One might be called ‘ideational’, meaning things arising from an overlapping mind-set (it would be to ascribe too much coherence to it to call it an ideology). The other might be called ‘institutional’, meaning those things arising from governmental or administrative overlaps. And, of course, there is an interplay between the two.

Ideational connections

Here, the main issue is the very clear overlap (£) between those who think that the coronavirus restrictions are overdone, should never have happened or should be lifted quickly, and that the whole thing is essentially a fuss about nothing – the self-styled ‘lockdown sceptics’ - and those who support Brexit, think it is easy and simple, and should have been done by now.

There is a small but very influential group of politicians and commentators who approach a nexus of issues in the same way be it Brexit, coronavirus, climate change, immigration, sexual harassment or any number of other things. It’s always the same people, and always the same blokey, angry, resentful, constantly triggered but can’t-you-take-a-joke-snowflake, sneeringly superior yet self-pitying victimhood schtick.

And it’s always the same argumentative tricks – cherry-picked statistics (£350M/ comparative death rates), semi-understood factoids (WTO rules/ herd immunity), bogus past comparisons (we managed fine before/ flu), overblown rhetoric (dictatorship/ house arrest), and drastic exaggerations of their opponents’ claims so as to erect absurd strawmen for demolition (so it means WW3/ we’re all going to die? Really?).

In a previous post I gave Tim Martin, the Wetherspoon’s boss, as an exemplar in discussing this overlap, at least as regards Brexit and coronavirus. Martin, of course, is a passionate advocate of Brexit and ferocious critic of social distancing measures. Since then, fascinating work has been done by Professor Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University, showing correlations between Brexit-voting areas and lower levels compliance with social distancing instructions.

The data are open to different interpretations – especially the possibility that those in leave voting areas might be more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home – but a plausible one is that the correlation partly reflects the overlap in mind-set I alluded to (just as there is an overlap in the US between Trump’s core vote and those objecting to coronavirus restrictions).

Another set of interconnections was identified this week by Professor David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London. He argues that both Brexit and the government response to coronavirus reveal shared “fantasies about British scientific and inventive genius”. He also links this to pervasive myths about the Second World War which, of course, have been central to Brexit and are almost unavoidable in relation to the pandemic. As the historian Robert Saunders, of Queen Mary, University of London, remarked, it is as if British politicians only have one historical reference point and it’s one they don’t understand anyway.

Institutional connections

Edgerton’s analysis centres on the government’s attempts to boost ventilator production, the story of which was devastatingly laid bare by Peter Foster in the Financial Times this week (£), provoking an angry response from the government. And here the ideational and institutional connections begin to merge. For as Foster records, the link is not just idiotic comparisons with the Blitz or Spitfire production, but a constant boneheaded refusal of politicians to engage seriously with experts. In other words, governmental failures over coronavirus are inseparable from Brexit ‘simplism’ in general and the Second World War myths in particular.

The institutional interconnections were thrown into even sharper relief by a truly devastating report in The Sunday Times about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (which also provoked a furious reaction from the government or perhaps, as is widely rumoured, from Dominic Cummings). They were at least two-fold. One was, simply, political exhaustion from all the Brexit battles of the previous months. A second was the way that planning for a future pandemic had been entirely sidelined by planning for no-deal Brexit, not just in general but in relation to specific recommendations about pandemic planning.

The latter is just another way of saying that it’s impossible to deal simultaneously with coronavirus and the Brexit negotiations, a point I’ve made repeatedly on this blog. It’s also been made, with more authority, by Georgina Wright and by Joe Owen, both of the Institute for Government, and innumerable others.

Why does this matter?

Most obviously, it matters in terms of the concrete question of whether the transition period will be extended. Without repeating the arguments for that, an important development this week was the Scottish government calling for it. It’s also been called for in a punchy editorial, again in The Sunday Times, and by a group of senior ex-civil servants. And a new opinion poll shows that 64% of the public support extension with even 45% of Brexit Party voters doing so. What is also coming into focus in this debate is, as I wrote this week, not just the question of whether to extend but by how much given that only one extension is possible. Yet we still don’t know that it will happen, as Tony Connelly of RTE explains.

But I think there is a deeper importance to all this. What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in, and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

They are the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.

This can be seen in the increasingly bizarre and convoluted stories about (non-)participation in EU procurement schemes, and the Turkish PPE flight. Both bear the hallmarks of the Brexity ideology, dishonesty, bullying, spin and incompetence that are the stock-in-trade of these people.

The realities of delivering Brexit had already found them out, but in the face of the pandemic their entire approach has been comprehensively discredited. If we must use Second World War analogies then, as Peter Oborne writes, Johnson is a Chamberlain not a Churchill. Oborne also notes what is being increasingly widely recognized about Johnson, and which I wrote about when he was still Foreign Secretary, namely that he is always in campaign mode and has no facility for, or much interest in, governing. The same is true of Cummings and, for that matter, the entire Brexit high command which has always been characterised by protest and victimhood not competence and responsibility. That is a disaster in terms of Brexit, but it is – literally – fatal in terms of coronavirus.

But – and this is the worst part of the legacy – despite all this some opinion polls show public approval for their approach continues to grow (and though the picture on growth is mixed, still, it shows continuing majority approval). They have no incentive to change their ways – even if they were capable of doing so - when the rewards for not doing so are so ample. That may change, though, and quickly. I have just a sense that the narrative may be shifting at the moment and one index of that is, actually, the furious responses to adverse news stories, which smack of desperation. It shouldn’t be forgotten how easily public opinion can turn, as it did, for example, over the Iraq War.

A final thought

From those thoughts flows another. In this post, as in many others on this blog, I have referenced academics, journalists and think-tankers who do such extraordinary work in analysing and communicating what is going on. So much for having enough of experts. Indeed, as has been widely remarked upon, it is noteworthy how, in the coronavirus crisis, the UK government has turned not just to medical experts but to academic scientists and to businesses to cope with that crisis.

What is less widely pointed out is that, on the basis of the education profile of the vote to leave the EU, the majority of these are likely to have been against Brexit and are very much the kind of people who for the last four years have been reviled as the ‘liberal elite’. Equally, the heaviest burden in dealing with the sharp end of the crisis has fallen on NHS workers of all sorts, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and so on. Many of these, at all levels of skill, are immigrants, including many from the EU-27 who did not even have a vote in the Referendum.

Yet it is all these people, rather than the archetypical coastal town pensioner or home counties golf club bore, who are now expected to deal with the coronavirus crisis (just as civil servants are expected to deliver Brexit whilst being traduced as remainer traitors). In this sense, the deepest connection between the coronavirus and Brexit is the way that the former has comprehensively discredited some of the central myths and lies of the latter. It turns out that when the chips are down educated professionals, immigrants, and indeed educated professional immigrants are rather important after all. More so, at least, than contrarian newspaper columnists raging against restrictions on their inalienable right to go around infecting people.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Beyond all reason

Once again, there’s not a great deal to say. But, once again, for as long as there is no change to the Brexit timetable it is worth looking at what has been happening because, as things stand, we’re less than nine months away from the transition period ending with, potentially, no future terms deal in place.

The consequences of that will not only be economic, but in economic terms alone they will be considerable, since they will come on top of the grisly impact of the pandemic, as outlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility this week. The proposition is that, in addition to this spectacular short-term 35% fall in GDP, rise in unemployment, and destruction of public finances, it is the inviolable ‘will of the people’ to add the effects of Brexit with or without a deal. Why make a tough situation tougher, as the Managing Director of the IMF put it in advising extension? No sane government would do so, and there are really no rational arguments against extension.

An attempt to make such arguments came this week from Shanker Singham, the highly influential “Brexiteers’ brain”, primarily based upon the idea that it would mean delay to the UK making trade deals with other countries, especially the US. But the value of such deals is nugatory compared with trade with the EU. The current government estimate is that a deal with the US would be worth, at most, an increase of 0.16% of GDP over 15 years, whilst even securing a free trade deal with the EU would see UK GDP grow 6.7% less over the same period than it would have done but for Brexit, and 9.3% less with no deal at all.

In any case, as I’ve pointed out many times before, the issue is not just the already incredibly tight timetable for trade negotiations with the EU. It’s the time needed to create the domestic regulatory institutions which – given the Government’s scorched earth Brexit policy – will need to be created from scratch when the UK exits REACH, EASA etc., and also for businesses to adapt to whatever the new trading relationship is. No serious commentator believes this is possible, so further disruption and damage is inevitable in the absence of an extension.

The current situation

The formal situation is that the Chief Negotiators for the EU and the UK met by videoconference this week and issued a new timetable for negotiations (again, these will be by videoconference). This will entail far less negotiation time than had been originally envisaged before the transition extension decision has to be made. To the extent that anything of substance is happening in the latest negotiations, it lies in the (negative) news that whilst the sides continue to exchange proposals, the UK has held off doing so for fisheries (£).

As has long been predicted (see this prescient article by RTE’s Tony Connelly from last November), this economically trivial but symbolically potent industry is likely to be crucial. It’s worth recalling that had the UK sought a ‘Norway-style’ Brexit then it would have meant exiting the Common Fisheries Policy and could have been negotiated whilst still remaining in the single market. So if it’s really so crucial to leave the CFP (a doubtful proposition anyway), it could have been achieved by that route, as could an independent trade policy which is supposedly the other main economic benefit.

Conflicting accounts and predictions

There are widely conflicting accounts of UK thinking on an extension. The Sun has reported that the government want a ‘pay as you go’ arrangement, with extension on a month by month basis. It seems highly unlikely that the EU would agree to this, and it would cause endless agony to UK businesses (not that the government seems to care about them). By contrast, The Spectator is adamant that no extension will be requested. Note that both publications are heavily hooked in to the Conservative government’s political and media networks. It wouldn’t be too cynical to imagine that what is going in these reports it kite-flying with different parts of the media and electorate, to see what the reaction might be.

There’s a reason to think that such kite-flying would be necessary: the Brexiters are very split, now, about extension. Some of the most intransigent now accept its necessity, yet read any forum in social or online media and it’s clear there is massive opposition from others, and that opposition would certainly be exploited by Nigel Farage, opening up all the old Tory fears that led to the Referendum, and Brexit, in the first place.

As to whether extension will happen (from the UK side – it’s generally expected that the EU would agree if asked, depending on the exact details), astute and well-informed commentators reach very different conclusions. Denis MacShane, who amongst other things predicted Brexit in 2014, sees coronavirus as offering Boris Johnson a Brexit ‘get out of jail’ card to pause and soften Brexit. However, Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust, who knows the Conservative Party intimately, argues persuasively that in its current incarnation it will almost certainly stop Johnson doing any such thing.

For what very little it is worth, I still tend on fine balance to think that MacShane is right – and it’s notable that some well-connected right-wing journalists are beginning to dismiss suggestions that extension is a non-starter for the Brexiters -  but that may only reflect my residual and probably misplaced optimism that the UK isn’t doomed to call every single decision about Brexit stupidly. However, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the question isn’t just whether there is an extension but for how long? Given the likelihood of ongoing dislocation because of coronavirus a short extension will be scarcely better than no extension at all. In some ways it will be worse as further extension, should it be necessary, is precluded.

Beyond all understanding

On the other hand, do we still have a ‘sane government’ in the UK? Well-informed accounts give a disturbing picture of chaos and dysfunction which is unlikely to be ameliorated by the reports that Boris Johnson “will not be involved in decisions” whilst convalescing and that Dominic Cummings “is back in Number 10 and working”. The latter, one assumes, is the unnamed “spokesperson” for the Prime Minister who yesterday unequivocally insisted that the UK would neither seek nor agree to an extension.

Within this statement, it was claimed that extension would reduce the UK’s flexibility in responding the coronavirus crisis. What this could conceivably mean is totally mysterious, although one suggestion, from Katya Adler, the BBC’s sagacious Europe Editor, is that it is code for avoiding paying into EU-wide post-virus recovery schemes. That’s a plausible explanation of Brexiter thinking, but, if so, exhibits the same tedious dishonesty as in the Referendum campaign of looking solely at the budget in assessing the economic costs and benefits, and indeed looking at membership only in transactional terms. For, of course, even assuming the UK were obliged to pay into such schemes (which is far from clear), even assuming it were a net contributor to such schemes, and even assuming no humanitarian arguments, the UK would also benefit from its nearest trading partners recovering as quickly as possible from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Anyway, I think it’s equally likely that the idea is to try to blunt the argument that Brexit should be extended to focus on coronavirus by pretending that extending would hamper dealing with it. So, as from the start, the entire Brexit project remains steeped in spin and lies. Nor is it difficult to predict the next one, if indeed there is no extension – that all the damage caused in the New Year is nothing to do with Brexit, but all down to the virus.

Yet, equally, precisely because of the endless lies, the current unequivocal statements do not offer a sound basis for prediction. It was, after all, Boris Johnson who in his very first speech as Prime Minister, and repeatedly thereafter, insisted that the UK would “come out of the EU on 31 October, no ifs or buts”. So, really, who knows?

But, for now, we go on with every single aspect of life in Britain transformed, disrupted or on hold but a government still masochistically insisting that for Brexit, alone, it is ‘business as usual’. It’s beyond understanding, because it’s beyond all reason.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Brexit stasis

The delusion that the Brexit negotiations are ongoing, as discussed in my previous post, continues and in doing so becomes ever more surreal. Last Friday, spokespeople for both the UK and EU stated that each side was analysing and clarifying the other’s draft texts. David Frost apparently talked to Michel Barnier’s deputy this week, and Michael Gove wrote of ‘recognising the importance of negotiations’ (within the Joint Committee framework) over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Meanwhile, a still convalescing Michel Barnier said he’d be talking to David Frost next week to organise future negotiating rounds.  In short, nothing of significance is happening.

This is entirely unsurprising and has been evident for weeks: the coronavirus crisis is, rightly and necessarily, all-encompassing. So there are thin pickings for any analysis of Brexit, although of note is the launch of LSE’s new weekly Brexit news round up. Such analysis remains warranted, despite the gravity of other events precisely since, despite those events, Brexit continues to tick away in the background.

The extension debate

In substance, though, all that matters is the debate about if, whether, when, and how the transition period might be extended. In that regard, Professor Simon Usherwood of Surrey University has written a smart ‘devil’s advocate’ argument as to why it should not be, whilst Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government has provided an analysis of the EU perspective on extension.

From within the EU come reports that the idea of completing a deal before the end of the year are “fantasy”, although no official statement of this sort has been made. The UK government remains unequivocally committed to the existing timetable and the doctrinaire Brexiter position (£) is that any extension is unthinkable. A tiny sign that this position may be cracking came this week when Nick de Bois (described as a “leading Brexiter” although I must confess that, despite probably following Brexit more closely than most, I had never heard of him before) called for its abandonment (£). Leading figure or not, he is a former aide to Dominic Raab who most certainly is. De Bois’ argument, quite logically, is that the public would not forgive any diversion from dealing with the pandemic.

The key issue, picked up on by Peter Foster, now Public Policy Editor of the Financial Times, is that pushing ahead on the existing timetable would not just be a diversion, but a self-inflicted one. I think this is insufficiently understood by those who anticipate the government using coronavirus as a cover for leaving with no deal (or some very limited deal), pretending that the adverse effects of the latter were just part of the fall out of the former. That’s a possibility, of course, but it would be a monumental political gamble to assume that, outside of a hard core of leave voters, the public would swallow it.

Imagine the situation if after – perhaps, for none of us know how coronavirus will play out – a series of intermittent lockdowns throughout 2020 the UK finally emerges from the casualties, sufferings, fears and privations of these to suddenly encounter new disruptions and a new crisis at the beginning of January. Reputable current forecasts suggest that GDP will have fallen by over 5%, the biggest recession in UK post-war history. And people are unlikely to be using the ‘that’s your bloody GDP, not ours’ line of the Referendum, given the likely impact on employment (though there are other views on this) quite apart from all the other thing they will have had to endure. Tell them then that to keep the true flame of Brexit alive another few per cent must be lopped off and I suspect the backlash would be huge.

Coronavirus and Brexit entwined

In that scenario, coronavirus and Brexit would have been decoupled, in that people would see their effects as separate. But, of course, for now the political reality (and in many ways the practical reality as well) is that the two are completely intertwined, as I have been arguing since the beginning of March. Paul Mason has suggested that Brexit calculations framed the government’s initial, flawed, coronavirus strategy. I am not sure that is quite true (it relies on a particular reading of both, and puts heavy weight on a couple of sentence in Johnson’s Greenwich speech) but as recorded on this blog some weeks ago and more recently confirmed in detail by a Reuters report it is clear that Brexit lay behind the government’s failure to participate in EU-wide ventilator procurement systems.

In any case it is certainly true, as Luke McGee of CNN writes, that coronavirus and Brexit are currently inseparable because of the transition period question. And that was written at the point when Johnson had been diagnosed with, but before he was hospitalised by, the virus.

This, by far the biggest development of the week, adds another very obvious layer of problems to the looming decision on extension, which needs to be made by the end of June. Hopefully, Boris Johnson will be fully recovered by then and his health, at least, won’t be a factor in the decision. But even if so, the issues of time and governmental bandwidth, and the possible illness of other politicians and officials on both UK and EU sides will remain. For example, Michael Gove, a key figure in the negotiations, is currently self-isolating, whilst of Dominic Cummings, the power behind the Johnson throne, who has the virus, nothing has been heard for days.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation in an intensive care unit has drawn attention to another of the connections between Brexit and coronavirus, in addition to those discussed in my recent post on the subject. There, I pointed out that one connection was that someone elected as a ‘Brexit Prime Minister’ had, perforce, to become a ‘coronavirus crisis Prime Minister’. With his illness, what has come into stark relief is how the entire cabinet – and indeed the entire parliamentary Conservative Party – has been remade for one purpose and with one, overweening test of political loyalty: enthusiastic embrace of Brexit and monocular determination to complete the process by the end of the year.

This means, on the one hand, that questions of competence are a very distant second to those of ideological conformity. Few looking at the current cabinet would regard it as self-evidently well-equipped with the skills needed to manage a major national crisis, or see in the Tory backbenches a reservoir of such talent. Nor does Dominic Raab, the stand in Prime Minister, necessarily impress as having many leadership credentials beyond his no doubt exemplary record as a Brexit Ultra, a record not undermined but cemented by his admitted ignorance of even the most basic facts about the project he so assiduously supports.

On the other hand, the New Model Tory Party makes it very hard for Johnson to backtrack on the extension. For him to do so would entail a major conflict with the ERG, whose numbers are more than enough to defeat him in the Commons. Yet, still, he might be able to bring it off given his long track record of about-turns and his freedom from the inconvenient shackles of principle or consistency. That would be much less true for Raab (or any other deputy), for whom extending would mean not just ‘betraying Brexit’ but betraying Johnson (whose principles would, in these circumstances, be seen as less plastic than if he, himself, were at the helm).

Either way, the decision on extension won’t go away, and it will have to be taken whilst the coronavirus crisis is ongoing and, possibly, whilst the Prime Minister is still unwell.

An adult in the room 

I mentioned earlier the likely backlash if the government doesn’t extend, and 2021 begins with ‘No deal 2.0’, to which can be added the political pressure, as the end of June 2020 approaches, to avert this. Both the pressure and the backlash are all the more likely given the other major political event of the week, the election of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader. As Tom McTague argues in The Atlantic, this represents a moment of “deep importance”. It offers the potential for a far more effective official Opposition than in recent years, including an opportunity to improve on Jeremy Corbyn’s woeful inadequacy with respect to Brexit – admittedly, a decidedly low bar to set - about which I have written many times on this blog.

Of course, the situation is different now in that Brexit as such is an accomplished fact. Starmer is clearly not going to make re-joining the EU Labour’s position and he is not going to make reliving the Brexit battles a priority. That is wise, since the former would be premature and the latter worse than pointless. I do not even expect him to make extending the transition period the centre piece of his first months as leader, not least since by definition those months are going to be dominated by coronavirus.

What can be expected is that he will stake out his obvious claim – and his most obvious political appeal – for responsibility, diligence and competence. Those are not only his natural political calling cards, they are also the way in which he can most effectively be seen as a foil to Johnson’s very different persona. And, especially in the context of crisis, that could well be extremely appealing in saying, in effect: at last, there is an adult in the room. Within that – not as the headline but as a sub-clause or at very least a footnote – the case for transition extension will sit comfortably. It’s not a stretch. His persona is one of being sensible; extension, self-evidently, is just that.

Time marches on

For all that we are living through strange and unprecedented events, as regards Brexit there has been at least one continuous theme since the “bleak and bitter day” when Article 50 was triggered just over three years ago. Time. Since then, everything that has happened has happened under time pressure. That needn’t have been so, since nothing in the Referendum vote specified a date by which it should be done. But the Brexiters’ impatience and paranoid fear of betrayal - and their accurate diagnosis that Brexit was only fleetingly and, then, only marginally the ‘will of the people’ - made it so.

The same is true now, as the clock ticks down to the government’s supposedly immutable deadline of 31 December 2020 via the procedural one of 30 June. In that respect, my comment in the opening paragraph that nothing of significance is happening with Brexit is wrong. With every day that passes we get closer to the point of decision on extension and, depending on that decision, closer to the point at which leaving with no future terms deal could happen.

We are about eleven weeks away from the extension decision. For comparison, it is now about eleven weeks since the first reported cases of coronavirus in the UK. The conclusion to be drawn is that there is almost no time left but that, within such a time, a great deal can change.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The latest delusion

There’s always been something delusional in how Brexiters talk about negotiations with the EU. It started with Vote Leave’s lie that these would be completed before starting the legal process to leave. Since then - from David Davis’s ‘the first call will be to Berlin not Brussels’, through to Boris Johnson’s ‘breakthrough’ acceptance of the original but discarded Irish Sea border to secure his ‘oven ready’ deal, and via innumerable calling points - it has been a journey based on dissimulation, disingenuity and fantasy.

The latest delusion is the most bizarre of all. It is that the negotiations are happening when to all intents and purposes they are not, and that they are on track for the end of the current transition period when they very clearly are not.

It’s true that there have been some ongoing conversations and exchanges of documents between Brussels and London, but the two remain ‘galaxies apart’. Indeed there are signs that they are becoming even more distant, with reports that the UK is seeking to re-open what had been agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement about regional food trademarks (£).

This gap extends not just to the content of any agreement but also to what form such an agreement would take, with the EU favouring a single all-encompassing deal and the UK a series of separate deals. But, crucially, whilst there is some exchange on the nature of these differences that does not amount to a negotiation about how they might be resolved. This negotiation is “on hold” because of coronavirus (£).

The Joint Committee

It is also the case that the Joint Committee of the UK and EU met for the first time this week (by videoconference) and this was a high-level meeting led by Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic, the Vice-President of the EU Commission. This is the committee established by the Withdrawal Agreement to oversee and monitor that agreement. In this sense, it is a separate process to the future terms negotiations, although it could come to play a role in overseeing whatever emerges from those negotiations and, equally, substantial disagreements over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement could stymie them.

There are multiple questions and uncertainties about how the Joint Committee will work. It is not clear what progress was made on answering them this week, although the planned sub-committees were established for various areas (citizens’ rights, financial settlement, Cyprus bases, Gibraltar, Northern Ireland). On the last of these, there are already significant tensions. Tony Connelly, RTE’s ever-informative Europe Editor, reports that there is an ongoing row over the EU’s desire to maintain an office in Northern Ireland, which the UK apparently regards as an ‘infringement of sovereignty’.

On the face of it, this seems to be a further instance of the increasingly hard line approach Johnson’s government is taking. But, as with the backtracking over food trademarks, it feeds the sense that the UK somehow does not feel bound by, or is willing to renege on, what it has already agreed. And there are some grounds for that suspicion, not least because amongst the Ultras, perhaps including Johnson, there is a view that the Withdrawal Agreement was never legitimate, being largely the creature of May’s government during what they see as a ‘remainer parliament’. Indeed still lurking in the Brexiter undergrowth is the mistaken idea that nothing, especially the financial settlement, should have been agreed in advance of the trade negotiations.

Even if this were not so, on the most charitable interpretation the row over the EU’s Northern Ireland office is that it shows the underlying problem of differential readings of what the Northern Ireland Protocol (of the Withdrawal Agreement) means. That is not surprising given the way it was so hurriedly put together in order for Johnson to be able to proclaim a successful renegotiation of the erstwhile backstop. Indeed on the Protocol more generally, Tony Connelly also reports considerable divergence of emphasis between the UK and EU sides emerging from the first Joint Committee meeting.

In particular, the EU are emphasising the need to clarify in detail how and when the Irish Sea border checks will be implemented. This is contentious in itself, since the UK government, and Johnson in particular, seem not to have understood what was signed up to. But, crucially, it also points up the pressure of time: how, especially with coronavirus, are these systems to be established by the end of the year?

An absurd pretence

It is these issues, and regulatory preparedness, quite as much as the future terms negotiations themselves, which make it so absurd that the Brexit government will not openly acknowledge the need to extend the transition period. It’s reported that civil servants expect such an extension and as they get redeployed to work on coronavirus they are cancelling wholesale Brexit-related meetings with business groups, the European People’s party has called for it this week, and the British public want it (£). As per my post last week, the stumbling block is the Brexit Ultras, who regard extension as a conspiracy to thwart Brexit (£).

One way to blunt their inevitable opposition would be if, rather than the UK ‘applying’ for an extension with the connotation of being a supplicant, it were to be agreed between the two parties with neither acting or appearing as the first mover. That would be permissible within the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and, whilst it wouldn’t assuage the Ultras, it might reduce the traction their complaints would have with the general public, especially if such a move happened at the height for the pandemic and if Johnson were still enjoying his current opinion poll ratings.

Ending self-indulgence

Unless or until that happens, we remain in a peculiar fantasy landscape in which we act as if Brexit is ongoing simply in order to stop the Ultras throwing a tantrum when we all know that, in fact, it has stalled. In a sense, this is just another version of the familiar Brexit dynamics in which purism does battle with pragmatism. In this case, purism decrees that 31 December 2020 is an immutable date whilst pragmatism suggests that terrible damage will be done by treating it as such. Not to say that extension would be easy, logistically, especially in terms of the EU budget cycle, but it would be easier than the alternative.

I continue to think, on balance, that in due course pragmatism will win out on this occasion. That would go against past form since at every stage of the Brexit saga it has been the Ultras who have won the day. But perhaps coronavirus means that we are finally going to reach a point where the country ceases to be held hostage by the peccadilloes of a few extremists. As Rafael Behr writes, the pandemic has made “the whole [Brexit] project look parochial and self-indulgent”. How much more so to refuse even to extend the period over which it is undertaken?

As noted in last week’s post I may be posting less now, as less is happening with Brexit. Today’s post is obviously shorter than usual reflecting this lack of activity - but I wrote it anyway to cover what little is happening just so as to maintain what has (inadvertently) become a continuous record of the main Brexit events since 2016.