Thanks to coronavirus getting an EU trade deal by December is impossible – now is the time to push back the deadline

Indeed, the outbreak makes the case for a softer version of Brexit than the one the prime minister wants

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 18 March 2020 13:17
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Dominic Raab claims coronavirus strengthens case for ending Brexit transition period in 2020

Boris Johnson is showing the leadership the country needs in the face of the coronavirus, but he is in denial about one inevitable consequence of it. His self-imposed 31 December deadline for completing a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU was always going to be tight. The outbreak has now made it impossible.

Talks involving a total of 200 UK and EU officials due to take place today were postponed. The UK has not published its proposed free trade agreement as planned. Some civil servants working on no-deal planning have been switched to the all-consuming effort to tackle coronavirus.

Although Johnson will soon have to bite the bullet, the official Downing Street line is: “The transition period ends on 31 December. This is enshrined in UK law.” Of course, that law could easily be changed; an emergency bill on coronavirus measures will sail through the Commons tomorrow. Sources insist the talks can carry on through methods such as video conferencing, and that the government can handle more than one issue at once.

In Brussels, officials have also been swamped by the outbreak and are struggling to produce a coordinated EU response. They believe a delay to the negotiations is inevitable and expect the UK to take advantage of the provision in last year’s withdrawal agreement for a one or two-year extension, which must be agreed by June. Johnson should quickly bow to the inevitable and opt for a 12-month delay.

While he does not want to break his promise to cut all EU ties and leave the single market and customs union in December, few voters are going to lose sleep over a minor delay for totally understandable reasons. A slightly delayed deal is better than a rushed one or, more likely, no deal on World Trade Organisation terms.

Hardline Brexiteers would prefer a “no trade deal” departure but this would impose tariffs on British business when they would still be reeling from the coronavirus effect. A rushed “bare bones” trade agreement would impose non-tariff trade barriers such as customs declarations and delays at borders, a huge burden on companies as they struggle to survive. As Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, said last night:“This is not a time for ideology and orthodoxy.” He admitted this was an “economic emergency” as well as a health one. Why would the government make the emergency even worse for business?

Despite that, Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, told MPs: “We’re confident that we can get this done … I don’t think delaying Brexit negotiations would give anyone the certainty on either side of the Channel that they need.”

Yet the prospect of more upheaval next January would mean more uncertainty. As Lisa Nandy, the Labour leadership contender, pointed out: “British companies who trade with the EU do not know what terms they’ll be trading on in 10 months’ time. Add to this the falling demand and disruption created by coronavirus and it is reasonable to expect many businesses will not survive.”

Indeed, the outbreak makes the case for a softer version of Brexit than the one Johnson wants. The manufacturing firms he is urging to switch production to vitally needed ventilators will see their supply chains disrupted by his proposed barriers.

The invisible, deadly enemy in this war does not recognise borders and is an advert for the whole world to be “in it together” rather than “taking back control”. Sovereignty is no protection against this virus. It could even prolong its survival in the UK.

Johnson wants to withdraw from the European Medicines Agency on 31 December, against the advice of the health experts on whom he is now relying. Although ministers hope “close cooperation” with the EU will continue, there is no guarantee of that, so the UK might have to wait longer for a coronavirus vaccine.

The country is leaving the EU’s early warning system for pandemics. Ed Davey, the acting Liberal Democrat leader, has asked Johnson in a letter why the UK is opting out of a coronavirus daily call between EU health ministers, even though non-EU nations like Switzerland join in. “This cannot be sensible for the protection or health of British people,” Davey said. “I am urging Boris Johnson to do the sensible thing and put Brexit on hold.”

Those politicians calling for a delay are not trying to use the virus as a back-door way to kill Brexit. The UK has left the EU. The transitional period was originally going to be 21 months, and has been cut to 11. So a minor delay is irrelevant when compared to a crisis in which the government’s scientific adviser says chillingly that 20,000 deaths would be a “good outcome”.

This period has shown Johnson is a better prime minister when he listens to the experts, rather than derides them as Michael Gove did. There’s no doubt what they would tell him about the relative priority of coronavirus and Brexit.

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