Brexit must wait for no man

by Lee Rotherham

Covid’s shadow has passed from the negotiating table, and so the Brexit talks have resumed. ‘Time and tide wait for no man’, as the saying goes.

That dictum finds its origins in Chaucer. In The Tale of the Clerk of Oxenford (“The Clerk’s Tale”) we read,

“For thogh we slepe, or wake, or rome, or ryde, Ay fleeth the tyme; it nyl no man abyde.”

Notably though, that same verse begins with the encouragement,

“Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok of soveraynetee, noght of servyse”

It would appear that the UK side have accepted that encouragement too. The UK’s lead negotiator, David Frost, has publicly rejected an extension of the Brexit transition.

The fact that a number of arch-Remainers have been demanding precisely that should of itself underlined the political threat that would otherwise arise. But the antics of a diehard fringe aside, there are many practical and pragmatic reasons to dismiss such an option. The first is that any extension would need the agreement of both parties.

Under Article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement, a one-off extension might be signed off for up to one or two years (a somewhat odd wording). However, amongst other administrative complications, that would draw the UK into the next EU multiannual budget, whose terms would themselves become a fresh negotiating burden and enduring sore – even assuming the EU side played nicely.

Capitals might though demand a price, such as Madrid over Gibraltar or fish. Indeed, the UK’s coastal communities are the single biggest immediate potential loser, as talks over the new fisheries arrangements (in which the UK has a very strong hand) are being finalised at the very deadline for requesting any extension. The Commons Fisheries Policy is the original sin of UK accession to the EEC, as we at the Red Cell have recently explored in a recent paper. Caving in over it now would destroy much of the credibility of the Government amongst Brexit voters, who sent them to Downing Street on loaned votes.

The price might though take another form. It may come in a fresh and separate Memorandum of Understanding, committing the UK to a particular course of action – for example over its general approach to divergence, delaying the promised red tape regulatory review; or affiliating to one of the old-style ‘pillars‘ of the EU through closer Defence or Security cooperation than in the national interest. Financial liabilities additionally might arise through extending the period and terms of UK association to the European Investment Bank, or contingency liabilities to Eurozone bail outs pushed through the core budget. The problem is, we don’t know what might be asked; and we certainly don’t know what might then be tried on after the event. Anyone blindly optimistic about how the EU works ought to revisit how the Commission warped the ‘Disaster Clause’ to bail out the Eurozone, leading to the UK having to fork out billions in support despite the clear treaty abuse, and to extended diplomatic wrangles to get the country off the hook for any further liabilities even as a non-Euro state. For all its talk of being a legal-based order, the EU institutionally cannot be trusted in a crisis.

Any extension also removes the planning certainty associated with current timeframes and deadlines. This would be particularly damaging for ongoing FTA talks, particularly with the US which is set in the context of the Presidential elections. But it also creates transitional complexities for businesses trying to plan ahead, as well as for those involved in contingency and transitional planning within Whitehall itself, for instance over contracts or staffing grids.

Most peculiar of all is how people have forgotten the simple fact of the calendar. The end of the Brexit transition is currently set to happen at the close of the year, during a holiday season. There is a reason why the EU has member states transition into the Eurozone at that time of the year: economic, transport and labour slow down means the timing itself reduces friction. Whether it was at the common ‘book’ launch of the Euro in 1999, or the physical launch of the notes and coins in 2002, or Slovenian accession in 2007, or Cyprus in 2008, or Slovakia in 2009, or Estonia in 2011, or Latvia in 2014, or Lithuania in 2015 – 1 January was always picked as the magic date because change was always going to be easier at that time of year. To date, no one has yet suggested how long any extension would be for, and as a result no one has given a fresh date. Easter holidays would be a remarkably poor substitute when ports and airports are involved.

Quite laughably, some unnamed EU officials have been cited by Brussels correspondents as suggesting that the UK is sticking with the original schedule in order to ‘hide the effects of Brexit behind Covid’. There is a twisted half-truth in that. Current events mean that the transition period is happening over a period of coincidental trade disruption and divergence anyway. Given that Brexit carries with it some inherent disruption (though not anywhere near as much as casually touted by the pro-EU lobby), circumstances themselves supply some mitigation as current timings stand.

In particular, we should also consider the future shape and direction of the EU itself. Aside from the economic liabilities of extending transition, there will be increasing political ones. The EU describes itself as sui generis, but it is really a fledgling federal system. Federal systems accelerate political and economic centralisation above all in two circumstances; when faced with emerging technology (which tends not to have been thought of when drafting their constitutions), and at times of crisis. That is often with wartime or its aftermath, if one considers for example the shift in federal-state power in the US with the World Wars; or in Canada with how Mackenzie King in 1945 leveraged the temporary ‘borrowing’ of provincial powers to fund his social welfare programmes with the threat of refusing federal grants to provinces that refused to play along. The EU is no different in accelerating after a crisis. It did so with Maastricht, after German reunification shifted the balance of power in Europe. It did so with Justice and Home Affairs after 9/11. It will do so with Coronabonds, Article 222 (the Solidarity Clause), and very probably Defence. There was already a second EU Convention lined up before the virus broke: having worked behind the scenes on the first one I can guarantee the end result will be more EU and not less.

If the UK makes the mistake of still being tethered to the EU in 2021, it will not only be lined up with new threats from Brussels. It will also have missed an opportunity. But, after the last 30 years, what’s new?

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