Is the Pandemic Sending Brexit into Lockdown?

For the last three years, the UK has been driven by a polarizing decision called Brexit; all talks were about uncertainty and divisions, about the divisions between remain and leave. At present, that seems to be an era long gone.

Brexit Seemed to be on Track Until Covid-19 Changed Everything

With the last general election, Britons asked the new government to move on and leave the EU. Boris Johnson’s address to the Nation on January 31 promised to be ensuring that.

Nobody could have ever imagined that things would have gone so differently. After the coronavirus has changed everybody’s life and expectations, is Brexit still a priority in the agenda?

Larry Elliott, a longtime Eurosceptic journalist, argues that the pandemic is exposing the EU’s failures: “The message being sent out is that Europe is a project for the good times and that when the going gets tough people can only really rely on their own government and the nation state.”

Is Brexit what Great Britain really needs to talk about with Europe right now or is the pandemic sending Brexit into lockdown?

The Pre-Covid-19 Brexit Stalemate

On February 26, David Frost, the Uk’s chief negotiator, called a press conference with the FPA in order to introduce the 30 page publication setting out the UK’s approach to the negotiations with the EU supposed to begin shortly, from that week on. He than left to Brussels in order to start the first round of the talks with Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart. After that meeting, Barnier announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending Frost into self-isolation as he was also showing symptoms of the disease.

Coronavirus Shelved EU-UK Brexit Negotiations

While talks were put on hold, the pandemic started causing chaos all around the world. The British PM called for lockdown and the civil servants working on Brexit were switched to dealing with the coronavirus, or being sent home. As a consequence, no meaningful work has been done in Whitehall to prepare for the negotiations, which are supposed to conclude by the end of the year.

On April 8, after recovering, Barnier started preparing his work at the European Commission which includes organizing upcoming negotiation rounds with Frost, who has also recovered. Obviously, it would be impossible to continue face-to-face talks which have been suspended because of social distancing measures.

As the coronavirus has struck at the heart of the post-Brexit trade talks, is there any hope that cross-channel negotiations could make any substantial progress while the pandemic continues?

Videoconferencing vs. One-on-One Talks

On April 5 after the Queen’s speech PM Johnson was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital due to coronavirus after suffering 10 days of symptoms including a high fever.

Prior to that day, Johnson had consistently dismissed calls to seek an extension to the negotiating period Britain entered after officially leaving the bloc on January 31: “no ifs, no but”. After all, he won the election on this pledge.

The thing is that, what looked certain before the outbreak looks doubtful afterwards, as everything has changed and nobody knows how the world would look like when all this is over.

EU Official: Johnson’s Year-End Deal Scenario ‘Fantasy Land’

Boris Johnson’s plan to seal a deal with Brussels by the end of December  “which was already hopelessly optimistic”, has been described as a “fantasy land” by EU officials, the Guardian reports.

The German newspaper, Der Spiegel, published a leaked letter from Michael Clauss, the German ambassador to the EU, where he outlined the scale of the bloc’s inability to work during the outbreak.

While the first round of the talks at the European Commission could have a chance to be held, the second one, at the European Council HQ where all the member state’ positions are coordinated, will be more complicated due to the lack of facilities. The pandemic has cut the capacity of carrying out work which is now 25% of what it would usually be.

With only one videoconference available per day “and worse facilities than the EU commission, it would be impossible for the member states to have the same input through the EU Council. This would make a successful negotiation nearly impossible,” an EU official told the Guardian.

All Nonessential EU Matters On Hold

In the leaked letter from Clauss to Berlin, it was also explained that all nonessential issues, the ones not-related to rebuilding from the pandemic, would be temporarily suspended.

These words resonate more significantly as we consider that Germany will take over the rolling EU presidency semester from Croatia, in July 1 and what the German Ambassador wrote implied that Brexit will not be on the top of the EU’s economics agenda.

He also wrote that videoconferences are not able to replace face-to-face meetings. “No formal quorum, no marginalized conversations, no confidentiality of the negotiations, no interpreting. Difficulties in text work.”

It takes two to negotiate and a UK government spokesman made it clear that the PM remains fully committed to the negotiations and that “discussions with the commission are continuing, with the aim of reaching an agreement by the end of the year with no intention of changing.”

Delay is the Smartest Option

Nick de Bois, former chief of staff to Dominic Raab at the Department for Exiting the European Union in 2018, is among those who believe that delaying the Brexit trade negotiation talks could be the best thing to do now, due to the heightened difficulties from the pandemic.

“Videoconferencing can go so far, but it was the personal chemistry of Johnson that clinched the withdrawal agreement, first by settling the Northern Ireland backstop with the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and then deploying his considerable charm offensive to win over EU leaders to support the deal,” de Bois said.

In the best case scenario, meaning that a deal is agreed by the latest possible date of October 2020, what happens from that moment on is that all the 27 member states will be called to endorse the trade agreement. But, if this process would have been difficult without the outbreak, things are getting worse now.

“With the inevitable financial fallout from the coronavirus shown by a North-South divide within the Eurozone countries on who should be picking up the bill for the extensive intervention measures undertaken by national governments, ratification of what would be a very important trade deal could well be weaponized by southern member states to secure more generous EU bailouts that are inevitably down the line,” he concluded.

As Boris Johnson has high personal poll ratings at the moment, he could postpone the transition period without betraying his pledge, simply shifting  his investments and attention into coping with the pandemic. Nobody would probably be surprised by the PM changing his mind, because the UK is used to that and will probably approve this decision. Ubi maior.

Shifting Public Opinion

From the onset of the outbreak, it looks as if the British people are slowly starting to get prepared to see who was supposed to be the “Brexit PM” turning into the “Pandemic PM” and swallow the idea that the divorce from the EU can and must wait.

“Some argue that the UK government was elected on a promise to Get Brexit Done, and allowing a delay would be a betrayal of the voters,” the Times reads while calling for an online surrey to its readers and adding that: “Others say the coronavirus crisis is more important, and its impact would prevent a satisfactory deal being struck in any case.”

Fully 75% of the people answering this question said that Brexit can wait. A Focaldata poll, commissioned by the campaign groups Best for Britain and Hope Not Hate, found that 64% of voters want Johnson to “request an extension to the transition period in order to focus properly on the coronavirus.”

UK Conservatives Are Also Changing Their Tune

Tom Harwood, journalist in the FM Conservatives says that Rishi Sunak reiterating the Government’s commitment to concluding UK-EU FTA by December is not believed to by possibile by several Tory MPs. “Let’s be clear we’re in the midst of a global epidemic, many Brexiteers would not see a short extension to the transition period as the end of the world,” he concluded. The key issue, picked up on by Peter Foster, Financial Times, is that “pushing ahead on the existing timetable would not just be a diversion, but a self-inflicted one”.

Adding, that more time would probably help in achieving a better post-Brexit trading relationship, given the circumstances and people would accept and forgive if the government will not be able to stick to the original timetable choosing to prioriti\e the emergency, now.

The National Audit Office said that between 2016-17 and 2019-20, the Treasury made available £6.3bn of additional founding to cover the costs of the UK leaving the EU with or without a deal. Government departments already spent more than £4bn on preparations for leaving, the public spending watchdog said.

Are we sure the Britons will accept more funds to be spent tackling this issue while the sountry, as all the rest of the world, struggles to cope with the coronavirus pandemic?

Brexit vs. Pandemic

“Freedom of movement brought the man who is currently saving the PM’s life,” Naomi Smith of Best for Britain, said.

One in every 20 NHS employees is from the EU making up 20% of the UK’s GPs. Since the 2016 referendum result, the number of European Economic Area (EEA) nurses to have left the NHS has tripled.

On March 31, due to the emergency, doctors, nurses and paramedics from abroad had their visas extended so they could “focus on fighting coronavirus,” Pritti Patel, Home Secretary, said. The extension applied to around 2,800 migrant health professionals working in the NHS with UK work visas due to expire before October 1. “They will be renewed automatically for a year free of charge so they can remain working in the country,” the Home Office said.

But this is not enough. The NHS was buckling under the weight of rising demand, facing a severe staffing shortage even before the pandemic outbreak. “More than 40,000 nursing roles are currently unfilled amid a sector-wide crisis,” the Telegraph read, last January.

Mark Dayan, policy analyst at health think tank the Nuffield Trust, said that continued migration into the UK is critical. “The NHS has a long-term tendency to rely on non-UK migration,” he explained adding that “The NHS is also more dependent on migrants than other sections of the economy are on average.”

What happens is that, while staff from the EU dry up, the UK — still relying on migrants — is now looking back again to the Philippines and India. In the last two years, the number of Filipino recruits has grown by more than 20 per cent, while those from Spain, Portugal and Romania quit. But this is still not enough to cope with the national emergency all the countries, India and Philippines included, are facing now.

The thing is that, the workers’ shortage due to Brexit is now more prominent than ever; plus, the coronavirus crisis has made certain roles more essential than ever before, showing that they are necessary to society and the economy at large.

The ONS data shows that on average 50% of jobs in the food chain (excluding hospitality) are held by foreign, mostly EEA (40%), workers. Same goes for logistics and wholesale where the non-UK workforce is 39% or cleaning where it is at 35% on average. 

A “Pick for Britain” campaign has been launched by the government and the farming industry to recruit up to 7,000 British workers to harvest fruit and vegetables as travel restrictions means that only 10% of Eastern European workforce is now available.

Europe has never looked so far away, especially when, at the beginning of the outbreak, the UK originally rejected the EU scheme to work together to order the life-saving equipment. The government claimed that they had missed the email communications to join and this is the reason why they didn’t joined. Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, explained that, as an “independent nation”, it was able to create the ventilators it needs without the support of other countries. More than 480 ventilators have arrived from overseas in the last month, either donated or bought from countries including US, Germany, China, Sweden, Turkey and Taiwan.

Should Brexit be Put on Hold?

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people in the UK still think that Brexit has to be done quickly and talks should not stop.

Nigel Farage has warned that the EU will force Britain to pay billions towards Brussels’ coronavirus bailout fund if the UK extends its Brexit transition period. He told online viewers that the UK still has £7billion left in the European Investment Bank (EIB), which, he warned, could be used to prop up the collapsing European Union.

Whilst the Prime Minister has remained resolute in its bid to complete post-Brexit talks by December 31, Brussels sources have ruled out renegotiating the terms of the transition period to allow for a “Flextension” for just an extra few weeks.

Such an arrangement would require a new treaty which is not theoretically impossible, but basically more difficult during these hard times.

Boris Johnson still has a B plan in his pocket: a no-deal Brexit.

The question is: is this the proper bid to think about in these hard times, or, once again, Brexit can be put on hold one more time?