To extend or take Britain into a Götterdämerung Brexit?

The Coronavirus crisis has utterly derailed all the economic basis as well as the negotiating timetable for a swift agreement, writes Denis MacShane.

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By Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe

24 Apr 2020

As he savoured his moment of glory after his triumph in the polls in December followed by Britain leaving the EU Treaty in January, Boris Johnson thought he had Europe at his feet and rushed into law an act stipulating that the UK would terminate all negotiations by December 2020.

The argument of the Brexit excitables was that the US, China, India and white Commonwealth countries would be queuing up to conclude new trade deals with the UK to replace the current trade with Europe.

European nations would have to withdraw their fishing boats from waters they had fished in for decades, and European capitalism was so dependent on the City of London for finance or imports of BMWs and French wine into the UK there would be no problem in finishing off a quick deal.


It was always unrealistic but has become positively surreal as the Coronavirus crisis does immense damage to the UK economy with the GDP facing a 15 percent drop and thousands of firms closing with up to 2 million workers facing the dole queue.

Every major economy is in its own ‘sauve qui peut’ mode with frontiers closing and the chances of new advantageous UK trade deals overseas evaporating overnight.

There has been zero progress in the negotiations so far. Zoom is great for webinars or social non-distancing for drinks, dates, or family get-togethers, but one cannot do serious line by line treaty discussions with decisions having to be referred up to principals in 27 governments over video links.

“It was always unrealistic but has become positively surreal as the Coronavirus crisis does immense damage to the UK economy with the GDP facing a 15 percent drop and thousands of firms closing”

The EU has published an outline treaty but the UK has offered only vague texts with nothing on fishing, nothing on state aid, or the EU demand for a level playing field if the UK wants to keep market access, nothing on rules of origin – a sine qua non in all trade deals.

In the Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU, the UK pledged to keep the Irish economy as one entity which means customs controls on goods coming from the island of Ireland in the EU into mainland Britain outside the EU.

Now hardline pro-protestant Unionist Tory MPs have objected, saying this means changing the status of the province of Northern Ireland so London has signalled, in a remarkable act of bad faith in international negotiations, it wants to rewrite that agreement.

At the same time the 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit have been transferred to other duties to deal with the response to Coronavirus.

There has been a massive redeployment of government officials, not seen since World War 2, to deal with the disastrous shortage of medical equipment, surgical gowns, masks, ventilators and testing for the virus.

The economic fall-out also requires 24/7 civil service work to help businesses stave off bankruptcy.

In short, there are neither the officials, the leadership, nor the preparations to conclude an EU-UK comprehensive deal this year and certainly not by June. The end of June is when the UK has to request an extension.

That is a decision reserved for Boris Johnson. No one else can make it. He has dedicated his entire life since his time as a Daily Telegraph reporter in Brussels in the 1990s to mocking and denigrating the EU and, in effect, being the voice, albeit a funny and boisterous one, of UKIP ideology inside the Conservative Party.

He won. He has a handsome majority. He has fulfilled the mandate of the 2016 plebiscite to leave the EU. The UK has left.

He is recovering from a serious COVID-19 attack which required a stay in hospital and very close nursing supervision to ensure his condition did not worsen.

He is convalescing at the UK Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, with his pregnant girlfriend. With the chief cat away, the anti-European mice have come out to play.

Many Brexiteers were beginning to accept that negotiations could not finish this year let alone this summer.

"In short, there are neither the officials, the leadership, nor the preparations to conclude an EU-UK comprehensive deal this year and certainly not by June”

In an article in the Sunday Times, Nick du Bois, a Tory MP 2010-2015, a keen supporter of Brexit and popular in the Conservative Party, who served as Dominic Raab’s chief of staff at the Department of Exiting the European Union argued: “It would be incomprehensible to many members of the public if Johnson’s government devoted time and energy on these talks until the pandemic was under control.”

According to Harry Cole, deputy political editor of the Mail on Sunday, who has very good links with hard Europhobe Tory MPs: “The immediate and lazy assumption that devout Brexiteers in the government are going to be automatically up in arms at a short extension, appears misguided from actually speaking to them.”

“This has been a decades’ long fight. It’s over the line, UK is out. But like with the prospect of No Deal chaos, do they really want the end of the Great Project to be forever tainted?”

“Images of goods piled up at ports, which if they get this wrong while distracted is a real threat. With supply lines already pushed by panic buying and Britain already facing a very turbulent year, the argument that it is not really the time to risk anything that could even slightly hamper the recovery efforts is growing at pace.”

Iain Martin, a pro-Brexit right-wing commentator for The Times, argued that “Brexiteer anxiety on extending transition seems odd. Late 2020 and early 2021 are not going to be great for trade deals. It seems like a lunatic obsession right now.”

But with the return of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s key Brexit ideologue, to Downing Street, the tone has hardened sharply.

David Frost, the UK mid-rank diplomat, who Johnson believes is an expert on Brussels, tweeted on 16th April: “Transition end on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend. If the EU ask we will say No.”

It is not usual for a civil servant to make such grandiose and highly political statements of government policy.

The assumption is that the words were written for Frost by Dominic Cummings after clearance by two of the more ideological pro-Brexit ministers, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, the acting Prime Minister, and Michael Gove, who is nominally the cabinet minister overseeing Brexit negotiations.

Opinions are divided about Frost’s statement. Firstly, it is a red herring to say the UK will refuse an EU request for an extension.

In talks with Brussels it has been made clear to me and to anyone who bothers to listen that neither the Commission nor the EU27 will ask for an extension.

“It is a UK decision and it would be quite wrong and even provocative for the Commission to be seen to be ordering about the UK government,” a senior negotiator told me.

In addition, the stipulation that all talks must end in 2020 is now written into UK law so only Prime Minister Johnson can change that law.

Most Tory MPs will accept his leadership. The Labour Party under its new and more effective post-Corbyn leadership will support such a move. It represents a major U-turn for Johnson but how many would make much a fuss given the utterly changed circumstances the UK, Europe and the world are now living under.

Brendan Donnelly, a former Tory MEP, argues, however, that the Conservative party “has metamorphosed from a traditional centre-right political grouping into a simple campaigning organisation for Brexit, to which all other governmental activities are subordinate.”

“Conservative Brexiters are deeply conscious of how unexpectedly lucky they were to win the referendum in 2016.”

So does Mr Johnson see himself in the Brexit bunker and in a Götterdämmerung moment believes Coronavirus is a supreme test of his anti-European leadership and the nation will willingly follow him over the cliff edge of a No Deal Brexit into whatever follows, as borders close and Britain lives without the thousands of lorries bringing in food, wine and other goods every day through Dover?

On 21 May, the Commons goes into its early summer recess. Announcing an extension and pushing through in a couple of hours a law to suspend the 2020 deadline Act might be possible without too much political backlash.

Alternatively, if Brussels was willing to stop the clock it could be done just before the long recess that begins 21 July.

Other than fanatical Farageites it is hard to see many objections. Two recent polls have said 67 percent and 64 percent approved asking for an extension.

It is Boris Johnson’s call.

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