Brexit Heading for Cliff Edge during COVID-19 Pandemic

European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) flags | OPED COLUMN Magazine

The Conservative Party, which is driven by a narrative around re-establishing British identity and is quite insensitive to economic or trade arguments, wants Brexit done quickly because it fears the British people might change their minds. That is why there is such a mad rush. It is not rational. It is imperative!

John Bruton | Oped Column Syndication

Last Friday Michel Barnier gave a stark warning about the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiation.

But this week Boris Johnson has come back to work.

Perhaps it was unrealistic for Michel Barnier to have expected the United Kingdom to have engaged seriously with the trade offs and concessions, essential to a long term Agreement  , while the UK Prime Minister was ill.

Brexit is Boris’ big thing. He made it. Other Tory Ministers have no leeway to make Brexit decisions without his personal imprimatur. He has purged from his party of all significant figures who might advocate a different vision of  Brexit.

The point of Michel Barnier’s intervention is that, now that Boris is back at work, he will need to  give a clear strategic lead to the UK negotiating team.  If he fails to do that, we will end up, on 1 January 2021, with No Deal and an incipient trade war between the UK and the EU.  Ireland  will be in the front line.

The scars left by COVID-19 will eventually heal, but those left by a wilfully bad Brexit,  whether brought  about deliberately or by inattention, may never heal.

This is because a bad Brexit will be a deliberate political act, whereas COVID-19 is just a reminder of our shared human vulnerability.

Boris Johnson signed up to a Withdrawal Treaty with the European Union, which legally committed the UK to customs, sanitary, and phytosanitary controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, so as to avoid controls between North and South in Ireland.

So far, Michel Barnier says he has detected no evidence that the UK is making serious preparations do this.  An attempt by the UK to back out of these ratified legal commitments would be seen as a sign of profound bad faith.

Michel Barnier said that negotiating by video link was “surreal”, but that the deadlines to be met are very real.

The first deadline is the end of June.  This is the last date at which an extension of the negotiating period beyond the end of December might be agreed by both sides. While the EU side would almost certainly agree to an extension, there is no sign that the UK will agree. Tory politicians repeatedly say they will not extend.

This tight deadline would be fine, if the UK was engaging seriously, and purposefully, in the negotiation.

But, according to Michel Barnier, the UK has not yet even produced a full version of a draft Agreement,that would reflect their expectations. The EU side produced its full draft weeks ago.  Without full texts it is hard to begin real negotiation. So far the UK has only produced texts of selected  bits of  the proposed Treaty.

But the UK  insist that Barnier keep these bits of  draft UK text secret, and not share them with the 27 Member States. Giving Barnier texts that he cannot share with those on whose behalf he is negotiating, is just wasting his time. It seems to me the UK negotiators are adopting this strange tactic because they have no clear political direction from their own side.  They do not know whether these bits of text are even acceptable in the UK!

In the political declaration, that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement, Boris Johnson agreed his government would use its best endeavours to reach agreement on fisheries by the end of July. Such an agreement would be vital if the UK fishing industry were to be able to continue to export its surplus fish to the EU. Apparently there has not been serious engagement from the British side on this matter.

The other issue on which Barnier detected a lack of engagement by the UK was the so called “level playing field” question.

The EU wants binding guarantees that the UK will not, through state subsidies, or through lax environmental or labour rules, give its exporters an artificial advantage over EU (and Irish) competitors.

The “level playing field” is becoming a difficult issue within the EU itself.

In the response to the COVID-19 economic downturn, some of the wealthier EU states (like Germany) are giving generous cash/liquidity supports to the industries in their own countries.

On the other hand, EU states with weaker budgetary positions (Italy, Spain and perhaps even Ireland) cannot compete with this.

It is understandable that temporary help may be given to prevent firms going bust in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption.  But what is temporary at the beginning, can easily become indefinite. And what is indefinite can become permanent. Subsidies are addictive.

The reason we have a COMMON Agricultural policy in the EU is that, when the Common Market was created 60 years ago, nobody wanted rich countries to be able to give their farmers an advantage over farmers in countries whose governments could not afford the same level of help. The same consideration applies to industry. Subsidies should be equal, or should not be given at all.

State aid must be regulated, inside the EU, if a level playing field is to be preserved. To make a convincing case for a level playing field between the EU and the UK, the EU side will need to show it is doing so internally. This will be a test for President Von der Leyen, as a German Commissioner.

Which way will Boris Johnson turn on the terms of a deal with the EU?

I think it is unlikely he will look for an extension of the Transition period beyond the end of this year.

He wants a hard Brexit, a clean break as he would misleadingly call it,  but he knows it will be very painful.

He will probably reckon that the pain of a hard Brexit, or no Deal, Brexit at the end of December, will be concealed by the even greater and more immediate pain of the COVID-19 Slump. Brexit will not be blamed for the pain. But if Brexit is postponed until January 2022, the Brexit pain will be much more visible to voters.

The Conservative Party has become the Brexit Party. It is driven by a narrative around re-establishing British identity, and is quite insensitive to economic or trade arguments. It wants Brexit done quickly because it fears the British people might change their minds. That is why there is such a mad rush. It is not rational. It is imperative!

John Bruton was the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the European Union’s Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He had held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.

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