Time to extend?

A crisis is the worst time to prolong the Brexit transition period

Artillery Row

A number of Brexit-supporting commentators have let it be known that they’re happy with the Brexit transition period being extended because of the Coronavirus epidemic. For example, the Mail on Sunday‘s Harry Cole said Brexiteers in Government are not “up in arms” about the prospect of extension because, he argues, they believe now is not the time “to risk doing anything that could even slightly hamper the recovery efforts.” And commentator Isabel Oakeshott says she thinks it’s inevitable the Brexit transition period will be extended as a result of Coronavirus and “as a Brexiteer I am cool with this.” But extending the transition period to deal with Corona is not as simple as it sounds.

First, the UK does not have the power to extend the transition period alone. This means there will be negotiations whether we extend or not – either over our future trading relationship or over the nature and length of the extension. And if you imagine extending the transition period might be a straightforward practical decision in the UK and EU’s mutual interests you haven’t been paying attention over the last few years.

To fair-minded, self-consciously reasonable people concerned about the nation’s response to a crisis, it seems like an obvious, even laudable idea to put party politics behind us and allow our membership to be extended for a while. But it would naive to suppose that this is how the EU sees it.

Everything for the EU Commission is political.  Remember the wrangle over the rights of EU and UK expats? What seemed like a straightforward, practical decision – to grant citizens currently in the UK the right to remain, and vice versa, turned into a battle of wills that lasted years. Eventually the UK granted the rights for EU citizens without having received reassurances from all EU countries that they would do the same. This was a clear, needless defeat which has been lost sight of. It shouldn’t be. As the temptation to give in and proclaim victory comes readily to both sides of Downing St – Number 10 and the Foreign Office.

Extending membership now is a trap, and by accepting it Brexiteers would be doing Brussels’ work for them

The lack of reciprocity in just this one example should remind us that the Commission, lacking any true domestic political pressure, will relentlessly attempt to gouge concessions out of the UK at a time when our economy will be deep in recession. Regardless of whether doing so will do the EU27 any economic good in the position they’ll likewise find themselves. We need to remember that remaining, in effect, inside the EU for so many trading purposes will not and cannot be a static, holding position. During the transition period the UK stays bound by EU trade policy which means we’ll be stung by anything the EU is – for example any retaliatory tariffs applied by the US – which seem likely.

Barry Legg, the Chairman of the eurosceptic Bruges group told me the idea of extending was “a high risk strategy” and pointed out that an emergency EU budget could include a large amount of British money if we were still locked in under the Withdrawal Agreement.

At a time when we need maximum flexibility to manage Coronavirus, it is a good idea to have our hands tied by a suspicious neighbour? The Withdrawal Agreement binds us into EU State-aid rules, which Brussels can use to include almost any Government interventionist policy that it doesn’t like. As Shanker Singham writes on ConservativeHome, it’s the perfect opportunity for the EU to lock us in the waiting room whilst it attends to its own crisis, safe in the knowledge that we can’t do anything meaningful to help ourselves.

Prolonging the transition – for what could run into years –  is a conscious decision to align ourselves with the EU bloc. This means that as well as putting any trade deals on hold, the political message to potential trading partners and allies, as well as to voters back home, is that the UK machine is as sclerotic and bureaucratic as the hegemon it’s trying to exit. That’s not exactly the story the “Vote Leave government” inside No 10 likes to tell about itself.  The UK decided to leave in 2016. If we don’t actually, in practice, do so, the big banks, bureaucratic multinationals and, with more glee than any, Whitehall will be able to chant “Four more years!” as their hopes get moved from intensive care back onto the ward. Inescapably with any extension they’ll be winning. It’s childish and self-comforting to pretend otherwise. Brussels won’t.

The blob implications are profound. Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall reports Civil Servants are claiming that they can’t tackle Coronavirus and Brexit at the same time and that Senior civil servants are “impressing upon their respective ministers the difficulties that no Brexit transition extension would generate.”  Mark Sedwill has demonstrated in the current pandemic crisis his effortless ability to run rings round the politicals in No 10. (Or not in No 10, as the displayed symptoms might require.)

We’re not dealing with a trading bloc, we’re dealing with a political union with supporters still studded throughout the British establishment. But the Government has a majority, John Bercow is no longer Speaker and the date of exit is set in law. Extending de facto membership now is a trap, and by accepting it Brexiteers would be doing Brussels’ work for them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover