LONG POST ALERT.... USUAL DISCLAIMER APPLIES.
While the country has COVID-19 still in sharp focus, we shouldn't take our eye off Brexit. The transition clock is ticking and on 30 June the UK has to decide whether to ask for an extension. Senior EU officials say that the case for an extension is overwhelming but there is little appetite for it on the UK side. The government might be tempted to use COVID-19 to camouflage the disaster of a no-deal crash out of the customs union and single market, But the cost of that will be high - and less affordable than ever.
This government seems hell bent on crashing out rather than looking at the changed landscape we are going to have to face post COVID-19. And the EU is also going to have other things on its plate too. If we fail to become more conciliatory, their patience with us may finally become exhausted.
We are so far away from reaching any agreement with the EU that it is difficult to believe it is now possible. The timeline was always tight to begin with but after talks stalled due to COVID-19, the prospect of a deal became even more remote.
The problems are immense. The British government have refused to talk about the Level Playing Field or Fisheries. No substantial discussion has taken place on recognising the ECJ or ECHR. in protection of data. There is no commitment to climate change measures, and the Political Declaration has been almost completely forgotten, although last week Michael Gove did finally come out and say that the customs border down the Irish Sea is now recognised*..... as we all knew it would have to be despite what Boris Johnson said during the election campaign. But who cares about Ireland now..? The DUP did what the Tories needed them for and have now learned how it feels to be shafted by them once they have gotten what they wanted.
There is nothing concrete yet about how the UK sees its relationship with EU security or defence measures but by contrast the UK is making huge demands about access to European data.... with no strings attached, of course.
More generally, the British have adopted a highly aggressive attitude which doesn't help, and is the main reason why so far, talks have only been talks, and not negotiations. The risk of no-deal is very real but as many suspect, that is exactly what the British government wants no matter how many times they say "Our European friends." French MEP Nathalie Loiseau (Renew Europe) said: "There's very little progress but a lot of posturing ideology. We want care for individuals and businesses that will be affected by this." The feeling in Brussels is that UK still wants all the benefits but none of the obligations. Cake and eat it. The UK's language is couched in ideology and hubris. The UK seems to have no idea what being a "Third Country" is. The reality seems to be that fulfilling an election slogan seems far more important regardless of the fact that in the last four months, the whole world has fundamentally changed.
Some budget forecasters are saying that Britain's economy will shrink by 13% this year. This is far worse than the 2008 crash and public borrowing is set to record a post war high. The budget deficit could be as high as £273bn. Five times more than the previous estimate and equivalent to 14% of GDP. For comparison, it hit 10% in 2008. We have already seen how woefully we were prepared for COVID-19. The problems have been laid bare from nursing shortages to lack of PPE and basic equipment such as ventilators.... we've somehow muddled through this far, but at a massive cost in human life. Add to this the shambolic state of our social care system which no politician has been brave enough to address.
Things are going to be bad enough by December... worse still if we get a second spike to COVID-19..... UK businesses will need every avenue open to them to recover but with no willingness on the part of the UK side to agree to the level playing field....... on social and environmental concerns...... and the difficulty of fishing it looks likely that there will be no access to the single market.
There is no free trade deal in the world that replaces membership of the single market and customs union - the most advanced trading model ever devised. We are the only country in the world that wants a new trade deal that will inevitably be worse than the one we already have.
The UK is putting itself in a position where it will have to replace all its existing trading relationships, expecting other nations to prioritise our needs when they will be focused on recovering from COVID-19 and dealing with the fallout.
The totemic industry during the Brexit campaign was fishing and it's raising its head again. EU negotiators clearly link fishing rights to any possibility of access to the single market but the British are not moving on that. Indeed, we have witheld our legal text on fisheries and this is causing concern in Brussels. Another source of concern is freight transport. Nearly a quarter of Britain's logistical companies are facing collapse.
To be fair, the Conservative government couldn't have seen COVID-19 coming during the election campaign. But it is now a fact and surely the British public would forgive them walking back on some of the election promises for the good of business and the country as a whole. But they seem determined to stick to the strict, hard line no matter what the cost in business, jobs, the economy, or the lives of British citizens.
We should accept any offer of an extension to the transition period, and make it the longest one we can possibly get.
After what the British people have been through these last four months, they deserve that.
*probably after being warned by the USA that anything that puts a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will kill any chance of Britain getting any sort of trade deal with the US at all.