We’ve all been engulfed by coronavirus news over the past few months, but Brexit talks have nonetheless quietly continued in the background. Over the next few weeks, they’ll come to a head. Here’s what we can expect and how coronavirus has impacted negotiations.
It might not feel like it, but Brexit is no less pressing today than it was before the virus erupted. Economies across the continent will take small but significant steps to recover from the economic impact of the virus over the coming years. Consequently, the details of our Brexit deal may become more important than ever before.
Despite this, it appears that David Frost, Boris Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator and his counterpart, Michel Barnier, are nowhere near agreement.
While the UK presses for a trade deal similar to Canada, the EU has refused such terms, arguing that because the UK is so intertwined with the EU economy it can’t be offered the same terms based on the assumption that the partnering country (Canada) is thousands of miles away.
This week, Michael Gove MP reflected on the “significant differences of principle” held by both sides of the negotiations and explained that it “remained difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement”. Similarly, the EU’s chief negotiator sent warning shots to the UK by claiming that the UK’s demands are “not realistic” and that the EU is “not optimistic” about agreeing a deal.
Technologically, negotiations have faced new challenges. Coronavirus has moved talks online. While video link makes such meetings more accessible, they also cause frustrations. People unintentionally talk over one another, internet connections are increasingly unstable and time differences are just a few of the new problems that may be stifling negotiations.
Ultimately, we are due to find out whether we have secured a deal, or if we’ll be proceeding with no deal, in June. In the meantime, Boris will continue to convey the perception that he will not bow to parliamentary pressure like his predecessor Theresa May and the EU will continue to outline their power: it’s 27 nations against one.
Coronavirus has dwarfed the danger of a ‘no deal’ Brexit
Failure to negotiate a deal would mean that Britain reverts to the default WTO rules once the transition period comes to an end on the 31st December 2020. This means that there would be border checks in place as well as tariffs, customs checks and other regulatory barriers that the UK and the EU currently charge on trade with countries such as the USA.
Before coronavirus took hold of the world market, this situation would have significantly impacted our trade, economy and freedoms. But the world has since changed. Coronavirus has halted world trade and travel, dwarfing the once striking changes that a no deal Brexit could bring.
The British government believe that coronavirus means the costs of leaving the EU is lower than ever before. They are therefore likely to take a harder line on negotiations than they otherwise might have. Perhaps that means that the gap between what Boris thinks he can secure and the deal that the EU is willing to grant will only increase.
Extend the extension?
Meanwhile, MPs from almost all opposition parties, including the Lib Dems, the Greens and SNP have written to Mr Barnier expressing their support for an extension to the transition period in the hopes that this will avoid a no deal Brexit. They urge the government to “not rush this”, arguing “the last thing our country and our economy needs at the moment is a further shock that could put jobs and livelihoods at risk”.
Despite their efforts, an extension is unlikely. Boris will take a political beating for an extension as he presents himself as the prime minister who will “get Brexit done”. He is likely to risk the decreasing impacts of a no deal over his political reputation.
All we can do is sit tight and wait for the meeting which will determine our future relationship with the EU, due to take place next month. Whatever outcome is finally reached, we can find some comfort in the idea that even the once most dramatic scenario will be cushioned by the new world that coronavirus has created.
The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org