Brexit was the big worry at the start of 2020, but today the COVID-19 pandemic is the main challenge ahead. We are still talking, but remotely, about the future EU-UK relationship with the clock ticking and progress slow.
The start of the year looked very different. Following Boris Johnson's victory at the polls in December 2019, the revised Withdrawal Agreement was ratified by the UK Parliament, relatively devoid of drama.
The European Parliament ratified the Agreement on 29 January with an overwhelming yet reluctant majority – glad to avoid No Deal, but sorry to see the UK, and many of our valued British colleagues, leave.
So on 31 January, the UK left the EU. And it was finally time to talk about the future, with 11 months until the end of the transition period. Deal or no deal on the future, the UK is determined to quit the single market and customs union, instead focused on a narrow economic relationship and limited cooperation in areas like energy and security.
But events have got in the way. On 30 January - the day before Brexit - the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. January had seen increased deaths in China from COVID-19 and the start of the disease's spread internationally.
In the weeks and months that followed, the outbreak spread rapidly and became the main, if not the sole, focus of politics.
The WHO declared that the outbreak had become a pandemic on 11 March.
“The pandemic demonstrates that, as much as the UK might want to take back full control, the ability to make decisions completely independent of the rest of the world is not always wise or even possible”
Brexit negotiations were inevitably impacted. The chief Brexit negotiators, the EU's Michel Barnier and the UK's David Frost, both announced in mid-March that they had COVID-19, although they have thankfully recovered.
In-person negotiations were first postponed, then moved to videoconference, which has not helped bridge the gap between the two sides.
The EU and UK positions are – perhaps as to be expected at this early stage – far apart. On the level playing field, on fisheries, on data protection, on the governance of the agreement.
The UK is approaching negotiations on the basis that it is now fully independent and sovereign and does not want to be tied to the EU. The UK maintains that it alone has the ability and right to decide what goes on in the UK.
If COVID-19 demonstrates anything, it is the fiction of this position; the UK is no longer in the EU, but that did not stop the arrival of the Coronavirus.
The pandemic demonstrates that, as much as the UK might want to take back full control, the ability to make decisions completely independent of the rest of the world is not always wise or even possible.
And we see there is real value in working together. Severing an existing relationship to go it alone may be more painful than profitable.
“There has not, as yet, been a reconsideration of the Brexit timetable in the wake of the pandemic”
Structures in place to enable cooperation are never more valuable than at times of crisis: such as European heads of state and government meeting regularly to discuss and take decisions, even if those meetings have to take place via videoconference. Such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and the Early Warning and Response System on serious cross-border threats to health.
Such cooperation is more valuable for being underpinned by a strong legal framework – ready to go in times of crisis, rather than the more ad hoc approach the UK says is sufficient.
Brexit has been relegated in importance by necessity in the UK, as ministers and civil servants who had been assigned the task of making a success of Brexit have now been diverted to dealing with the public health crisis.
But there has not, as yet, been a reconsideration of the Brexit timetable in the wake of the pandemic.
It is also concerning that there is speculation that the UK Government might consider the pandemic as cover for the difficulties that would emerge if the EU and UK were not able to reach agreement.
Eleven months was not a long time to negotiate a comprehensive partnership between the EU and the UK - one based, unlike previous agreements, on diverging, not on coming together. Now we have even less time and even less capacity.