Political leaders risk exacerbating the consequences of this terrible biological crisis by inflicting a new geopolitical oneby Jonathan Lis / March 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
As we lurch further into this unique crisis it is actually reassuring to remember when “self-isolation” simply referred to Britain’s new foreign policy. Our lives for the foreseeable future are transforming beyond measure, and the daily nightmare forces everything else into a grimly clear perspective. Coronavirus is infinitely more serious than Brexit. Setting aside even the stark human cost, it could prove incomparably more damaging to our society, culture and economy. But the response should not be to forget Brexit. It is, in fact, precisely why we need to keep talking about it.
Let us first remind ourselves of the facts. The transition period is scheduled to end on 31st December, and parliament has legislated to prevent any extension. An already impossibly tight deadline is narrowing by the day. Like almost everything else in Europe, the virus has stopped the trade negotiations in their tracks. Both the UK and EU have the political bandwidth to address this crisis alone. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has himself contracted Covid-19. If there was any remote chance of signing off a deal before, there is none at all now.
The good news is that in a world of intractable problems, here is one that can be fixed. It doesn’t even require a politically demanding or time-consuming change to the withdrawal agreement. The treaty provides for an extension of up to two years, the EU was (before the virus) already encouraging us to accept one, and as this crisis progresses, the government will face no political consequences whatever for agreeing to one. Indeed, Boris Johnson could potentially face a backlash for refusing it. The deadline for extending is the end of June—by which time we are likely to be at the peak of this disaster. If we can postpone every major event on earth until then, we can postpone our voluntary economic collapse. Everyone knows we will have to extend. We must accept the inevitable now and legislate for it.
But this issue is more fundamental than timetabling. The fact that coronavirus presents an epochal economic calamity does not mitigate the dire impact of Brexit. Indeed, the two things cannot be separated. The virus is halting the UK economy as we know it. Entire industries are in standstill and without government help, millions could lose their direct sources of income. It is a rapidly escalating disaster. But we do not, right now, have to worry about Brexit-induced friction in our supply chains. Goods can flow to and from the EU without customs or regulatory checks.
At the end of the transition, that changes instantly. As things stand, we are headed for no deal, which will require regulatory and customs checks on all goods travelling between Great Britain and continental Europe. As Theresa May’s government advertised in its no-deal awareness campaign in 2018, that will cause disruption on a vast scale. At the moment, the government is genuinely proposing to inflict it. Almost beyond belief, our leaders might compound an unprecedented natural disaster with an entirely voluntary human one.
The curious part is that the government does want to rescue the economy. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a string of measures to assist businesses and individuals and promises more to come, while Tory backbenchers clamour for yet more state assistance. For the time being, left-right economic divides are breaking up. And yet nothing has changed in the Brexit policy. Meanwhile, we can already begin to see what no deal might look like: our empty supermarket shelves have given the lie to any “Blitz spirit” or unique national stoicism. Why, then, can the government act rationally against a pandemic but lack the faintest glimmer of pragmatism to save our infrastructure and supply chains when it comes to Brexit? The key is responsibility. The government can find ideological flexibility for a problem it didn’t start, but can’t cure its zeal for the problem it did. That will have to change—but we have to discuss it openly and regularly before it does.
There is a third issue here. We must discuss Brexit because this pandemic shows us how much we stand to lose. It is at times of transnational crisis that coordination reveals its greatest value. The EU has instruments to share information on diseases and to pool capabilities for tackling them. It is pouring money into scientific research. Astonishingly, the UK government has so far signalled that it does not wish to be involved—even in a scheme to jointly procure ventilators. That position may change, but the fundamental point does not. A pandemic does not respect borders or offer a good moment to stand alone. On Wednesday the prime minister tweeted that we should “learn from other countries” and seek “international cooperation.” For the last four years Brexit has proved the antithesis of both. Now is the time to abandon vacuous slogans about independence and enact concrete measures of cooperation.
Coronavirus has taught us many lessons: governments can move fast when they have to, orthodoxy can be quickly tossed aside, and the unthinkable can fast become inevitable. Three weeks ago the idea a major European city might shut down for a few days seemed beyond fantastical; now it is the norm for entire countries for weeks or months. Governments have proved more flexible than perhaps even they realised they could. This crisis may be vastly graver than Brexit but we can still emulate our response to it. That means prioritising lives and livelihoods, listening to experts, ditching ideology and reassessing an approach when new evidence comes to light. This is how governments should address all problems, and our departure from the EU can no longer prove the exception.
For years the government has inculcated upon us that Brexit is something beyond our control, an unstoppable force. It is nothing of the sort. Brexit is manmade and at the mercy of political will alone. The government must not only ensure an extension to the transition, but rule out a shattering no-deal Brexit in all circumstances. Sometimes taking back control means pooling it, and leading means cooperating. If we cannot hold back a biological crisis we must stop a geopolitical one.