Crumbling Relationship: Will pandemic cement a no-deal Brexit?
June is a critical month for EU-UK talks on a trade deal. If no progress is made this month, a no-deal Brexit looks inevitable. Is it possible that’s because of, rather than in spite of, the coronavirus crisis?
On June 23, four years will have passed since the momentous Brexit vote. For more than three of those years, a “no-deal Brexit” perpetually loomed as a distinct and disastrous possibility.
The sting was seemingly taken out of that doomsday scenario last October when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar struck a deal of sorts on arrangements regarding the British border on the island of Ireland. That paved the way to the Withdrawal Agreement and on January 31, the UK finally left the European Union.
A one-year transition period up until December 31 meant that 2020 was to be the year in which the truly hard yards were finally walked. The EU and the UK would thrash out the bones of their future relationship and edge towards some kind of normality.
Then, as if by the design of some demonic deity, almost as soon as Brexit finally happened, the worst global pandemic in a century struck. It has hit the EU and Britain especially hard. Leaving mass death and economic calamity in its wake, COVID-19 has understandably dominated every agenda this year. Yet Brexit trundles on. And despite that apparent new dawn late last year, the no-deal scenario is back, except this time in a more permanent form.
The pandemic has greatly disrupted the first few months of EU-UK negotiations. Even before it hit, optimism was extremely low on the EU side that anything substantial could be agreed with the UK in such a short time-frame. This week, negotiators began their final scheduled round of talks. June is a crucial month. If the British don’t request an extension to the transition period by the end of this month — and, if as appears to be inevitable at this point, no free trade agreement is in place by the end of the year — then on December 31, 2020, the UK will no longer have any formal trading relationship with EU. Under WTO rules, it will become a so-called “third country.” That is the new “no-deal” Brexit.
And for several reasons, it remains a real possibility. The EU-UK talks have gotten bogged down in all the expected complications so far: fishing rights, workers’ rights, environmental regulations and state aid. There is still major uncertainty over how the so-called Irish protocol will work. Even in a smooth, open-ended negotiating environment, these would be difficult issues to resolve. Added to this, COVID-19 has restricted the negotiations in terms of physical movement but also mental movement. The crisis has commanded vast amounts of attention and resources that otherwise might have been directed towards the EU-UK talks.
Chaos is a ladder
But has the pandemic created another even more fatal consequence for a deal? Some argued that hardline Brexiteers in the UK government will use the economic disaster wrought by the pandemic as a kind of fog in which the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit might be more easily cloaked than they would in “normal” times. To borrow the dictum of a Machiavellian character from Game Of Thrones: “Chaos is a ladder.”
“Post-pandemic, it appears a fatalistic logic has taken hold in London: given the extraordinary economic hardship from COVID-19, could citizens really distinguish between that and the economic pain of defaulting to WTO tariff schedules with a no-deal or near-no-deal trading relationship with the European Union?” wrote Heather Conley at the start of May in a paper for the Center For Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington DC. Yet she believes the Johnson government, both because of its handling of the pandemic and the Dominic Cummings scandal, is becoming increasingly wary of a no-deal Brexit.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle (DW/dw.com)