London, United Kingdom – For three and a half years, Brexit seemed to eclipse almost every other talking point in the United Kingdom.
Then coronavirus took over.
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The global pandemic has upended life nationwide; killing tens of thousands of people and prompting a strict social lockdown that has triggered a major economic slump.
In its wake, the UK’s move to detach itself from the European Union has drifted to the sidelines of public focus and political debate.
But its complications and consequences have rumbled on in the background and are now coming to a head once more amid mounting concerns that the coronavirus crisis could derail efforts to finally settle the Brexit saga born out of the UK’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership.
Calls for delay grow
As it stands, the UK is set to leave the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of this year, when the Brexit transition period is scheduled to expire.
The transition period came into effect upon the UK’s formal departure from the EU, on January 31, and is aimed at offering negotiators on both sides time to hammer out a trade agreement while Britain remains bound to the bloc’s rules in the interim in order to minimise disruption to either party.
It can be extended, if both parties jointly sign off on such a move by the end of June.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, currently absent from front line politics while recovering from a coronavirus infection, wants to broker a comprehensive free trade agreement similar to Canada’s deal with the EU, and complete negotiations within the next eight months.
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He has repeatedly ruled out prolonging the transition period, and won a landslide election victory in December after running a campaign singularly focused on a pledge to “Get Brexit Done”.
But with officials in London and throughout the EU now overwhelmingly focused on the coronavirus pandemic, calls have grown in recent weeks for that option to be activated in order to buy negotiators more time and avert the UK stumbling into a so-called “no-deal” departure at the end of this year – a scenario that threatens damaging economic implications for both sides.
Among those pressing for the government to seek a delay have been former government figures from the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, as well as several prominent opposition MPs.
David Liddington, a former cabinet minister and deputy to Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, this week called on the prime minister to delay in order to focus efforts entirely on the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is not enough bandwidth to pay attention to Brexit in Whitehall, the European Commission and other major capitals,” he told Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on Sunday.
A day later, former Conservative chancellor Phillip Hammond warned it would be “unwise” for the government to stick to the December 31 deadline, advising ministers to strike an “interim trade agreement” instead, while the coronavirus crisis continues.
Meanwhile, there has been a litany of pleas from business leaders for the government to buy more negotiating time and reduce uncertainty amid the crisis, including from International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Kristalina Georgieva.
The IMF has warned the global pandemic is likely to cause the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s and do lasting damage to the global economy.
“It is tough as it is. Let’s not make it any tougher,” Georgieva said last week, when urging Britain to ask for an extension to the transition period.
The British public, too, appear sympathetic to the idea of an extension, with nearly twice as many people in favour of the prime minister amending his December 31 deadline than those opposed to such a move, according to YouGov polling.
British officials stick firm to Brexit
However, despite the calls for the government to reconsider its position, Johnson’s administration has refused to budge.
His chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, has instead doubled-down in recent days on the prime minister’s pledge to execute the UK’s departure from the EU by the end of 2020.
“Transition ends on 31 December this year,” Frost said in a Twitter post on April 16. “We will not ask to extend it,” he added. “[And] If the EU asks, we will say no.”
But the government’s bullish rhetoric has done little to banish uncertainty over how Brexit will end, with no substantial progress on a deal to date, and both parties distracted by a public health crisis wreaking havoc throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
“Coronavirus just makes everything so much harder,” Maddy Thimont Jack, a specialist Brexit researcher at the UK’s Institute for Government, told Al Jazeera.
“Obviously the government is prioritising its response to that and using a lot of resources in that area, which absolutely makes sense, but the question is how, then, are they planning to still do everything they were planning to on Brexit.
“There’s a practical limit on how much energy the government can focus on it [at the moment] … that’s the nub of the issue.”
Responding, a government spokesperson from the prime minister’s office told Al Jazeera that officials’ “top priority” was to “slow the spread of the coronavirus, protect the NHS and keep people safe”.
“While we have ensured that civil service resources are correctly allocated to best deal with the coronavirus crisis, negotiations with the EU are continuing and we have a committed, agile team in place to coordinate our exit from the EU,” the spokesperson added.
“The transition period ends on 31 December 2020 … and the prime minister has made clear he has no intention of changing it.”
UK-EU negotiations restarted “virtually” this week, as part of a revised timetable for the next three rounds of talks.
The resumption came after the coronavirus pandemic forced official talks scheduled for last month to be ditched when Frost was required to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms, and Michel Barnier, his EU counterpart, fell ill after contracting the virus.
The delay has heightened pre-existing concerns voiced by EU officials and opposition UK politicians that the existing transition period does not offer enough time for a settlement on post-Brexit relations to be reached.
Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said the prospect of a deal had only ever been “50-50 at best” given the “deep divisions” between Brussels and London on a range of issues.
Among the existing points of divergence are each side’s stance on fisheries – agreement on which the EU has said is a pre-condition for any overarching free trade deal – and level playing-field conditions concerning the environment, labour, taxation and state aid.
“But there are also very, very deep differences of [each side’s] philosophy about this; one of which is that the EU wants everything resolved under a single institutional umbrella … whereas Britain sees this as a series of separate arrangements dealing with different issues in different ways,” Menon told Al Jazeera.
“And it is harder to get a deal now than it would have been had it not been for the pandemic, because at a minimum, at least the two sides would have been able to sit together and talk face to face.”
Should London and Brussels fail to strike an agreement, Britain will crash out of the bloc at the end of this year in a “no-deal” Brexit.
The UK would then have to follow World Trade Organization rules to do business with the EU, unless and until any deal is struck, ushering in the imposition of financial tariffs, quotas and other regulatory barriers.
The measures could be hugely disruptive for businesses and very costly for the British economy, which is already reeling from the coronavirus fallout with the country now in its fifth week of lockdown.
Moreover, even if a breakthrough in negotiations were achieved, the transition period as it stands is unlikely to allow sufficient time for implementation of any newly agreed trade rules, the Institute for Government’s Thimont Jack said.
“The real challenge for business is just this ongoing uncertainty … they don’t know what they’re planning for,” she added.
“Hopefully, when we get closer to June, we’re going to get a better sense of what the government’s actually going to do.”
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‘Politics is king’
The EU, for its part, has made no secret of the fact it would be open to prolonging the transition period.
Daniel Ferrie, a spokesperson for the EU Commission, told Al Jazeera the body had “always said” it stood ready to discuss an extension.
But for officials in Brussels, it is up to the UK government to start the discussion.
Securing an extension could deliver practical advantages for Britain – namely giving businesses breathing space and the government time to work on a deal, while protecting existing frictionless trade arrangements under which the UK imports vast quantities of medical supplies, fresh food and other goods from EU member states.
However, any delay also threatens political drawbacks for a prime minister who has repeatedly pledged to deliver his Brexit promise to the British electorate and take the UK out of Brussels’ orbit by the end of this year, come what may.
Ultimately, Menon said, the choice he has is clear; keep to a self-imposed political timetable or bend to the economic realities of the current moment.
“It’s politics versus economics,” he said. “And I think politics is king for now.”