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Boris Johnson must be prepared for coronavirus to disrupt his Brexit timetable

Face-to-face negotiations between the UK and EU planned for 16 March have been called off, but UK ministers are sticking to the line that their Brexit

The prime minister has repeatedly stated that "under no circumstances" will his 31 December Brexit deadline be extended. Coronavirus may change that, writes Joe Owen.

Face-to-face negotiations between the UK and EU planned for 16 March have been called off, but UK ministers are sticking to the line that their Brexit timetable still holds. As every day passes, the scale of disruption to normal life – and lives – is growing. It is hard to see why Brexit would be immune to this.

Response to the coronavirus dominated the Johnson administration’s first budget. A week that was supposed to be a victory tour, following a spending splurge on election priorities, instead saw Johnson appearing in a series of sombre press conferences, flanked by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser. The talk was of disruption lasting many weeks, or months.

In light of this, Johnson’s already herculean task to negotiate, ratify and implement a new relationship with the European Union by 31 December is surely thrown into doubt.

Negotiations are already being disrupted – but that’s only the beginning

We have had one round of UK–EU negotiations. The next is already feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – the EU delegation will not travel to the UK and the two sides are looking for alternative ways to carry out the talks. But while video-conferencing offers a short-term fix, the problems facing the negotiations as a whole run much deeper.

Both sides have big decisions to make. But governments across Europe are prioritising their responses to what the prime minister describes as the “biggest public health crisis in a generation”. They are right to do so. With so many lives at stake, Covid-19 planning clearly ranks above any wrangles over ‘level playing field’ terms and the details of legal texts.  

The biggest demand on the UK side is on prime ministerial bandwidth. Johnson deliberately set up the UK’s EU negotiating team to report directly to him, through special adviser and chief negotiator David Frost. The prime minister is both the only elected politician accountable on UK–EU negotiations and the face of the UK’s efforts to tackle coronavirus; he may well soon need to choose which he wants to spend his time on. The British public would surely have a clear preference.

​Johnson must decide if he is prepared to inflict disruption on a recovering economy

For many UK businesses, the negotiations will be of less concern than the many practical changes already known to be incoming on 11pm on 31 December. These include a new immigration system, regulators and border checks – both at GB ports and ‘in the Irish Sea’, needed to fulfil the UK’s obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol.

All present a source of major uncertainty for industry. The government has openly said there will be some Brexit disruption, that supply chains will be affected. The economic hit of the expected deal – based on the same model used by the government to predict the US–UK one – will be significant, at just under 5% of GDP.

If coronavirus has anywhere near the effect on UK economy that is feared (comparisons are being made with the 2007/08 financial crisis), the prime minister will need to decide whether he’s prepared to voluntarily inflict further short-term disruption on it – potentially just as it starts to recover.

​There is a mechanism to secure more time – but neither side should play politics with it

More time can be made available. An extension can be agreed in June, for up to two years. While there is speculation about possible mechanisms for a decision to be made after that, early summer would seem a sensible point at which to make a decision based on the coronavirus situation.

Either side can ask for an extension – despite the EU so far painting it as a decision solely for the UK. This may change: certain member states, particularly those exposed to the fallout of Brexit, may view further economic disruption at the close of 2020 as an unwelcome end to what is shaping up to be a very difficult year.

The UK has to date ruled out another extension. In large part this reflects the unappetising prospect of going, again, to Brussels to request one, prompting a negotiation on continued financial contributions. For its part, the EU had also conveniently timed a joint decision on fishing rights to align with the extension deadline in June – where it might usefully employ it as leverage.

Both sides should leave such politics at the door when confronting Covid-19. Any decision to extend the deadline on the grounds of coronavirus must be made in good faith. It should contain a basic roll-over of budget provisions and an acceptance, from both sides, that the fight on fish will come another day. 

Institute for Government

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