The coronavirus crisis means next step in process should be postponedby Alex Dean / April 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
The Covid-19 pandemic is a health and economic emergency, imposing immediate burdens and threatening lasting consequences as yet unknown. Much is rightly being done to minimise the fallout. The entire apparatus of the state is being put to the task of combatting the virus.
Yet despite this, the UK government risks compounding a medical crisis with one of its own making. The Brexit transition—which preserves the legal status quo—is set to expire on 31st December. At that point Britain will be forced to adjust to a new trading and regulatory settlement, with all the disruption that entails. The UK government only has until July to request an extension from the EU, yet No 10 insists that despite coronavirus it will do no such thing. In the face of an unpredicted pandemic, is this justified?
In the view of several civil and diplomatic service grandees, the answer is no. When I spoke to our former permanent representative in Brussels Ivan Rogers, along with three former permanent secretaries who between them ran the Brexit department, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office, their position was firm. The UK risks adding to an epidemiological calamity with a trading one. Crucially, it was suggested that the public would accept a delay to avoid this outcome.
According to Philip Rycroft, former chief civil servant in the Brexit department, “it is simple common sense to ask for an extension of the transition period.” When you factor in “the huge economic uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” a postponement is essential.
Bob Kerslake, former head of the home civil service and later Labour Party adviser, agreed—as did Gus O’Donnell, Kerslake’s predecessor, who said “More time could lead to a better outcome for both sides.” “Clearly there has been much less time for negotiation than could ever have been anticipated.”
The argument is about basic prudence. When the UK left the EU on 31st January it had a Withdrawal Agreement in place but most of the future terms were yet to be agreed. The transition was the slot for doing this, but even the initial 11-month timeline was considered optimistic. Since then, coronavirus has come to occupy nearly all government bandwidth and even debilitated the prime minister.
“The timetable for delivering a trade deal was already extremely ambitious. The…