Covid-19 and lockdown continue to dominate the media and Brexit seems a distant memory. But with the bureaucrats now pushing hard for an extension to negotiations, Brexit may be about to take centre stage yet again.
It was all so predictable. The great and good of the British civil service and deep state are falling over themselves to push for an extension to the Brexit transition period – which, under current agreements, expires on 31st December 2020. Her Majesty’s Government only has until July to request an extension, so we can expect the Remainers to up the ante in the weeks to come. According to Bob Kerslake, former head of the home civil service, the timetable for delivering a trade deal “was already extremely ambitious”, while the lost time as a consequence of Covid-19 “has moved this from being ambitious to almost impossible”.
Of course, these are the very same people who told us that there was no other deal to be done than the May deal. At every step of the way, the Remainer strategy has been to obstruct and to obfuscate in a bid to get us all to throw up our hands and say, “forget it” – or at the very least to keep us within the orbit of the EU in a kind of subservient satellite-state arrangement.
But so far, the government has been steadfast and Downing Street has insisted that the UK will not ask the EU to extend, nor would it accept an EU request to do so. Once again, that raises the possibility of a no-deal outcome in 2021 should the negotiations prove unsuccessful. But given that the chief aim of the negotiations was to secure tariff-free access to the single market, which is now in complete disarray as a result of Covid-19, no-deal is much less of a boogieman than it once was. Even Yanis Varoufakis, the flamboyant ex-finance minister of Greece and erstwhile critic of Brexit, now suggests that the UK should simply “get out now, without a deal”.
Funnily enough, in many ways, the post-Covid world actually plays into the hands of the Brexiteers. Throughout the EU, national governments have taken control of their own individual response to the crisis, and there has been no sense of a unified EU-wide strategy. Just like the immigration crisis did, Covid-19 has exposed the EU’s shortcomings when it comes to its ability to deal with any major exogenous challenge in a coherent and cohesive manner. In times of stress, national priorities trump EU solidarity.
But there are also deeper forces at play here. Covid-19 has exposed major flaws in our globalised economic system. Our reliance on foreign imports has reached such a level, that when the NHS was short of PPE (personal protective equipment), we were unable to source enough of what are essentially little pieces of plastic domestically. Instances like this actually bring into question what it means to be a ‘developed’ economy – perhaps ‘dependent’ would be a better adjective. Equally concerning is our reliance on remote (and not necessarily sympathetic) places like China for our supply of APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients), essential ingredients in many of our life-saving drugs. Initial concerns about the supply of these critical products during lockdown were, thankfully, overblown. But in a world where East-West tensions are growing markedly, it would seem churlish to ignore this major Achilles heel.
Covid-19 has decimated key industries that are critical not only from an economic standpoint but also from a national security one. The aerospace industry is a major case in point, as key players such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce are already cutting or threatening to cut jobs in a bid to stay afloat. These industrial behemoths have a major impact on the supply chains which they support, and so the impact is not limited to these companies but is rather felt across the whole industry. True, Britain’s defence-industrial complex is already a shadow of what it once was, but we are now faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to it altogether if we’re not careful.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a believer in the virtues of free markets, and that means I also believe in the comparative advantages that free trade bestows. But globalisation has taken these principles to such an extreme that it has exposed systemic weaknesses in what was already known to be a double-edged sword. If we are going to address these problems in any meaningful way, our government needs the freedom to intervene where necessary to support those key industries. But if we want access to the single market, that will no doubt come with the caveat that we abide by the EU’s limits on state intervention. When combined with the other litany of caveats and limitations that the EU will no doubt attempt to gouge out on our business with the rest of the world, that is not a price worth paying.
I was hopeful for the UK and the Brexit project when this government entered office. But I’m afraid Boris and Co are now at the mercy of the apparatchiks and the ‘stay safe’ brigade, who will do everything they can to ensure that our release from lockdown is slow and tortuous, and that Britain seeks an extension to the Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister himself now appears to be a somewhat diminished figure after his brush with the virus and, perhaps more importantly, the extraordinary ordeal that has tested his government during its early days in office. Politically, his advisers will no doubt be telling him that a no-deal departure may be too much for the public to stomach after a virus response that hasn’t exactly covered the government in glory.
Now, perhaps, we’ll see what Boris is really made of.