Analyses & Studies

Brexit - What Next?

The UK Government should negotiate an extension of Brexit talks beyond the end of 2020. Such a move would command cross-party and business support, and critically underline that, at this time, politicians need to focus on coronavirus.

The last few weeks have been unprecedented as the impact of the terrible coronavirus has been felt right across the world. The numbers reported in the media every day underline the tragedy in families across our country, continent and world.

On the economic front, whether it is a Budget and then further economic announcements in days by the new British Chancellor, a bi-partisan package of more than $1 trillion in America, or the French President pledging that no company will ‘face the risk of bankruptcy,’ we are dealing with an economic situation, according to the IMF, ‘way worse than the global financial crisis.’  Indeed the estimates are that these interventions are at around 2 percent global GDP, which is already greater than during the financial crisis. 

These interventions reflect what global figures are telling us about the state of the economy in the lockdown. The Chinese economy falling by over 10 percent in the first quarter of the year; the Americans after 113 months of continuous increases in jobs having 6.6 million people filing jobless claims at the end of March, and predictions that the UK could this second quarter have its biggest quarterly fall in GDP since 1921. 

In this context, the word that once dominated British and European politics, business and public opinion has disappeared. The word? Brexit. Remember that? As Sophy Ridge at Sky recently tweeted: ‘Thinking of the days when we thought Brexit was a big story.’  Anyway, what is happening with the Brexit talks? They took place in Brussels at the beginning of March. There was agreement to have eleven separate negotiating groups across the key areas. Looking at the statements from Michael Gove and Michel Barnier there was ‘common understanding’ on issues like energy and transport, but differences on fishing and the critical definition of ‘level playing field.’ Nevertheless, when the leaders on both sides in the talks - Barnier and Frost - went into self-isolation because of coronavirus, the London talks at the end of March were cancelled. 

However, in early April legal texts were exchanged between the EU and UK and discussions continue to agree a future talks timetable. At this time, the focus of the leaders on both sides is clearly elsewhere. Public opinion in Britain according to two recent polls have a majority supporting extending the transition period. In a Focaldata poll, commissioned by Best for Britain and Hope not Hate, 64 percent of the UK public agreed with the statement: ‘The Government should request an extension to the transition period in order to focus properly on Coronavirus.’ A new YouGov poll showed that 55 per cent of people now support an extension to the 31 December deadline, with a quarter (24 percent) opposed, and 21 percent undecided. This chimes with the call by the EPP group in the European Parliament for there to be an extension and as the senior MEP, the German David McAllister put it, ’the ball is clearly in the British court.’ 

At the current time, the public will expect their leaders to be focussed 100 percent on coronavirus. The Withdrawal Agreement specifies that the transition period will last until 31 December of this year. The Agreement allows this to be extended, but the UK Government has ruled this out and legislated for there to be no extension. That was in January, but given coronavirus the UK Government should change that and negotiate an extension of the Brexit talks beyond the end of 2020. Such a move would command cross-party and business support and would give more time to reach a pivotal trade agreement between the UK and EU. It would also critically underline that at this time, politicians need to focus on coronavirus. It is time for such a move. 

Neil Sherlock CBE, Co-Chair of the French Chamber's Brexit Forum 

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