If there is any silver lining at all to the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has been almost as effective at shutting down endless coverage about Brexit as it has at shutting down the economy.
However, it seems that Brexit-talk has a better chance of seeing a V shaped recovery than has the economy.
We are approaching June, the end of which marks the deadline for requesting an extension. The reactions are as predictable as they are tiresome. Those who never wanted to leave the EU are all for an extension that lasts as long as possible – a last desperate gasp at hugging close to our European neighbours. Those who want to see the back of ‘European meddling in our affairs’ want to get it over and done with – come what may.
In between are those who are trying to assess the issue both from a political and economic perspective. And, if they’re anything like me, they must feel somewhat at a loss.
First, it may be as well to be clear as to what an extension is useful for, and what it isn’t. There comes a time in any negotiation when the broad outlines of a deal, and even much of the detail, has been agreed. But the i’s cannot be dotted and the t’s cannot be crossed in time to meet some arbitrary deadline. In such circumstances, prolongation can help to get it all over the line.
But that is far from where we are in the UK-EU negotiations. It seems to me that the two sides are miles apart. Worse, each side seems to have fundamentally different objectives they are trying to achieve.
The EU wants to hew the UK as closely as possible to EU regulations – potentially forever, and wants a continued role for the ECJ in dispute resolution. It broadly wants the same access to UK fishing waters as it had before Brexit – potentially indefinitely. And it wants a continued influential presence in Northern Ireland.
I’m sure there are many more issues that these but these are problematic enough.
For the UK, none of the above positions are in any way acceptable. There is little or no chance that the UK would agree, going forward, to be subject to EU rules over which it has no say. There is little chance of multi-year, broad access to fishing waters. As for Northern Ireland – well no chance of any solution there that both sides could easily live with.
So the question of extension or no extension boils down to this – if the two sides have such fundamentally different expectations, how is an extension going to help? It could be argued that time pressure is more likely to force one side or the other – or both, if one can imagine that – to start pulling back on their red lines.
Then there is the economic question. Some would argue that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, pushing the forecast economic damage from such an outcome is best postponed for a couple of years by which time everyone might have started to recover from the economic effects of the pandemic. Why layer one form of economic damage onto another?
The UK government may well take a different view. First, blending coronavirus with Brexit will make it impossible to distinguish where the economic damage may be coming from so might as well take one hit instead of two consecutive ones.
A second consideration is a view, right or wrong, that an EU that is under economic pressure from the pandemic is more likely to be flexible than one operating from a position of strength.
Then there is the matter of internal Tory politics about which I won’t comment. Far be it from me to try to predict the outcome of anything Brexit. So far, the betting odds seem to be slightly in favour an extension (20/21 odds) as opposed to no extension (4/6 odds).
We shall see.