The Clock is Ticking

By Ross Alexander Hutton

Imagine a parallel universe where the utterance of the words Coronavirus and Covid-19 failed to even raise an eyebrow. Such an alternate reality would be almost identical to our own except from the absence of the Coronavirus pandemic and its complications. It is a world in which the U.K. is embroiled in negotiations with the E.U. to reach a trade agreement before the transition period ends. Accordingly, Brexit is dominating the national conversation, media coverage of British politics and the priorities of Johnson’s government. Of course, our version of 2020 has turned out somewhat differently.

Envisaging a pandemic-free world may be fanciful but it reveals a holistic insight into just how different this consequential year for the U.K.’s economic, political and diplomatic future could have been.

Recall the Brexit countdown clock projection on the facades of Number 10 Downing Street as Britain officially left the E.U. in January. Even without the acquainted chimes of Big Ben, it was a symbolic display aimed to not only celebrate the enactment of the pledge that propelled Johnson to power but to – at least in the metaphorical sense – lighten the path to Britain’s post-Brexit utopia. Still buoyant from a landslide electoral victory and effervescent after ‘getting Brexit done’, it was to be a defining year for Johnson’s new government – but not for long. The tide turned. The honeymoon period of Boris’ premiership was well and truly over. With the focus on the impending national catastrophe of a once in a generation pandemic, Brexit seemed to just slip off the agenda – along with all discussion of it. Perhaps, the nation was so fed up of the years of indecision and division conjured up by the Brexit conundrum that the first chance to shift the national consciousness away from constitutional affairs was seized with both hands.

As the rest of Europe battles its own pandemic, political attention and resources have been diverted far away from Brexit. To put this reality into perspective, consider Professor of European Politics Anand Menon’s rationale: “If Brexit is second in our list of priorities, imagine how far down the list it is for E.U. member states”. The inescapable facts that Britain’s European neighbours have had bigger things on their plate to consider from the Multiannual Financial Framework to the coronavirus recovery package and are far less willing to spend already strained political capital on a trade deal with the now isolated U.K, have essentially turned the negotiating table upside down. Even with the December deadline looming, there just doesn’t seem to be the same pressure and momentum driving the talks to reach a trade deal as there was for the withdrawal agreement. In the parallel world where Covid-19 never struck, the impetus absent from our talks would most certainly be present. Thus, the backdrop to the transition period is one of relativity. Member states now view Brexit as miniscule – or even negligent – relative to the Coronavirus crisis, translating into the lack of willpower to reach an agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s philosophy of “where there’s a will, there’s a way” has, on many occasions, guided E.U. negotiations but without the drive to focus minds on both sides, Johnson faces an uphill struggle. For all the intense wrangling and exhausting technicalities of U.K.-E.U. negotiations, one should not underestimate the quintessential influence of politics on the zone for possible agreement. Afterall, it was on the Wirral that the meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar paved the way for the eventual withdrawal agreement. The change in leadership from May to Johnson, emphatically changed the politics of the negotiations. But, this time the E.U. is preoccupied and there are resisting factors at play in the background. Johnson cannot just embark on a charm offensive and seal the deal. Instead, its completely down to the two interlocuters: David Frost and Michel Barnier.

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has taken centre stage, the unrelenting, unpredictable and uncertain negotiations between the U.K. and the E.U. continue backstage in the shadows – the lights may be off but the heat is on.

Alas, the road to a trade deal is riddled with impasses. In recent rounds of talks, the issues of fishing and state aid have become significant sticking points hampering progress. While fishing rights are of infinitesimal economic importance, they are also of symbolic significance and a source of political tension. However, access to fishing waters is unlikely to sink the negotiations. On the other hand, the ‘level playing field’, whereby a common set of rules are adopted by the U.K. and the E.U. to prevent unfair competition, is at the core of the stalemate. Through Barnier’s eyes, the ‘level playing field’ is about fears that Britain could subsidise companies in a way that undercuts European rivals whereas, through Frost’s eyes, it’s about national sovereignty and ‘taking back control of our laws’. In essence, the deadlock is entrenched by each side approaching the issues from opposite angles. At the heart of the mutual misunderstanding is the way in which the positions each side takes just slides past the other. In other words, the negotiators are seeing each other but not hearing each other through the face masks.

Notwithstanding the practical difficulties of negotiating during a pandemic, the E.U. has a striking reputation for clinching deals against all odds – a status yet to be reaffirmed. It remains to be seen whether an agreement can be found despite the coronavirus crisis redefining the negotiations in almost every conceivable way. Any claims toward the final outcome of the negotiations are either ill-informed or falsehoods as this volatile process will test the resolve of negotiators and spectators alike.

The truth is, like it or not, the legal realities of the Brexit process mean that regardless of what transpires during the implementation period – even an event as exceptional as a pandemic – the clock just keeps ticking. Stopping the clock relies on a formal extension to the transition period, something which has been categorically ruled out by the British Government. With time short until the 31st December deadline, the negotiators will have to move mountains if they are to avoid the alternative to a trade deal. If no agreement can be found on the U.K.-E.U. trading relationship, then trade would revert to terms set by the World Trade Organisation. According to the CBI, Britain would switch overnight from tariff-free trade to tariffs on 90% of U.K. exports to the EU and borders would be subject to persistent delays due to extensive queues. All too often throughout the Brexit process, commentators (political or otherwise) have been quick to warn of the risk of the U.K. falling off a cliff edge but, this time – unlike the period before the 2019 election – there is no chance of delay or hinderance. It truly is ‘Deal or No Deal’.

In the months ahead, the U.K. government could well face two unparalleled crises occurring concurrently: a second wave of Coronavirus and a no deal Brexit. Some may question whether the timing of Brexit could be any worse but, as with anything concerning Brexit, it fundamentally depends which side of the argument one found oneself on in 2016. Nevertheless, Whitehall has already prepared an emergency blueprint for the Government’s response which seeks to deploy the army to mitigate public unrest and warns of price hikes resulting from food and medicine shortages. During a time filled with uncertainty – derived from the pandemic and Brexit – there is one constant, if a little faint, sound in the background: a clock ticking.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: The Times

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