At 11pm on 31st January this year, the United Kingdom left the European Union. This moment ended four years of national discourse about Brexit, discourse that had not only come to dominate politics in the UK, but also come to reimagine the way the public thinks about politics. No issue had captured the public imagination in this way. So, in comparison, the transition period we entered at 11pm on 31st January felt like an era of tedious legalese, which, compared to the drama of the process of leaving the EU was not necessarily an inaccurate reflection of its true nature. It was clear already that the public’s interest in this issue that was technically ongoing was understandably set to waiver. And then coronavirus hit.
The coronavirus pandemic of course pushed aside almost all other items on the news agenda. This included negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and EU that were to take place during the transition period. These negotiations have occurred to an extent, but without the eyes of a continent’s media analyzing every step. But the pandemic has impeded substantially the abilities of any negotiators to work towards a deal in a timely manner. This is starting to become a problem, and it is a problem that is not getting enough news coverage.
When the phrase “no deal” first emerged in the lexicon of Brexit, it was in reference to the lack of a deal on the future relationship between the UK and EU – the idea that we would not get a withdrawal agreement was unthinkable. By mid-2018, “no deal” referred to a lack of a withdrawal agreement. But then we got a withdrawal agreement, and the phrase “no deal” fell largely out of use as it appeared that the problem had been solved. But the initial use of “no deal”, that which refers to a future relationship deal, encapsulated problems that we may see next year. Despite negotiations being hindered by world events, the government in the United Kingdom have been adamant that they will not extend the transition period – rather choosing to leave with no deal on the future relationship whatsoever.
The transition period ends on 31st December 2020; it is widely considered that a deal will need to be reached months before that date in order for it to be ratified by every relevant party in time. This is of particular concern because no extension can be granted after 1st July, so the government has just days to either agree to an extension, or gamble that they will somehow reach a deal by September or October despite very little progress having occurred in the four months of transition so far. This is a concern for all of us.
No deal on the future relationship between the UK and the EU would mean that the UK is a third country to the EU in terms of trade – i.e. it is treated like a country with which the EU has no pre-existing agreements except those that facilitate normal diplomatic relations (for the UK diplomatic relations are set out in the withdrawal agreement, so even with no transition deal there will still be a British embassy in Berlin and flights from Manchester to Malaga). This means that UK trade with the EU, exports alone of which are responsible for 13% of the UK’s GDP, would be subject to the tariffs EU countries have with those that they do not have any agreement on trade at all with. This would be a disastrous hit to an economy that is already set to be struggling more than most in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is possible that this hit could be temporary only – the UK and EU may reach a deal on the future relationship only a short time after the end of the transition period, in which case the damage would be limited. But that is still not good enough when any damage at all could be prevented by the British government agreeing to an extension of the transition period. This action would not even be one that is particularly unpopular with the British people, which according to a YouGov poll on 2nd-3rd June are split evenly on support for an extension. But the same YouGov poll shows that people overwhelmingly want a deal on the future relationship. So why is the government taking this needless risk?
Jack Harrison is a political blogger and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.