The coronavirus crisis makes it difficult to progress other areas of policy, but the clock ticks on Brexit negotiations. Richard Parry reviews the UK and EU positions and the way that the new dominant issue may displace the previous one
The Johnson government’s motifs of control and accomplishment are being sorely tested by Covid-19, a 21st century crisis given political substance by the ability to test for the virus and compute its toll worldwide, day-by-day. Apparently influenced by behavioural science insights into the way that counter-intuitive approaches may be the best, England (for this purpose) is falling out of line with comparative norms. France, Germany, the US, Ireland and to some extent Scotland (larger theatres and concert halls are closing from 16 March) are pursuing lockdown scenarios that are familiar and go with the grain of public opinion. Maintaining a more normal social life for longer needs great political credibility, justifiable only by ultimate impact on the numbers.
This crisis would ordinarily make it almost routine to extend the transition period on Brexit, but the UK has sought to rule this out. Current policy irresistibly recalls the 1966 Beach Boys’ song: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to control waters and have market access just like now, and wouldn’t it be nice…’.
As with the withdrawal agreement, the EU, but not the UK, has a strategy that understands priorities and tradeoffs. Then it was ‘money, people and Ireland’, now it is ‘zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping’. The difference of approach was set out starkly in the EU’s negotiating directives of 25 February and the UK government’s White Paper The Future Relationship with the EU: the UK’s approach to negotiations (CP211, 27 February).
The EU remains united, but centuries of balance-of-power UK diplomacy, in search of European partners is in tatters. The historical fear of Ireland giving continental European powers a nearby base has returned. The idea that Brexit would remove obstacles to economic prosperity and global influence is already barely credible.
Inexplicably the UK failed to send a minister to the Munich Security Conference on 14 February and replaced one unknown (Claire Perry) as the host country leader at COP26 in Glasgow with another (Alok Sharma). Given this diplomatic opportunity on the climate change issue, the Johnson government tried to score points off Nicola Sturgeon and started to regret the Scottish location it chose.
In the first phase of Brexit, there were unquestioned UK climbdowns on money and Ireland. In a move in late 2017, associated with Theresa May’s chief negotiator Ollie Robbins, the UK offered to pay full contributions up to the end of 2020 to ensure that no member start would be worse off during the present EU budgetary period.
On Ireland, Boris Johnson decided late in the day that his way forward was to locate border checks on sea not land, the preferred Irish government position. Arrangements on people were more equivocal, with theoretical rights likely to run up against administrative reality where residency patterns have been complex.
Can the UK do any better in the second phase? The new EU mantra seems to match up with the Political Declaration’s call for ‘an ambitious trading relationship on goods on the basis of a Free Trade Area’. Not for the first time, the UK negotiators have mistaken capitalisation for substance.The EU’s three zeroes do not include any freedom from border checks or neglect of level playing-field issues. This is the point about zero dumping.
The EU may insist not on legal alignment of contextual issues around trade (such as product standards, environmental regulation and state aid), but rather on termination rights if there is what they judge to be a departure of major substance - the same technique used effectively against Switzerland. The big beast becomes the potential blackmailer, set out para 94 of the EU negotiating directives: ‘the Union should also have the possibility to adopt autonomous, including interim, measures to react quickly to disruptions of the equal conditions of competition in relevant areas, with Union standards as a reference point’.
An embryonic interim deal to get Europe through 31 December seems available, based on zero tariffs, quotas and dumping, emollient UK language on level playing field issues, and a standstill on fisheries for a limited period. This would build on previous UK practice of voluntary opt-ins to policy as long as the ‘sovereign’ right to opt-out is conceded. With positions hardening, the difficulty for the EU is when and how they exact a price for the loss from 2021 of UK money and free movement rights. It remains to be seen how much political energy will be left over from coronavirus for the Brexit issue later in the year.