BY CORNELIA MEYER
As the coronavirus ravages Europe — Italy, Spain and France have been particularly hard hit, and data from the UK suggest it may eventually be worse affected than any — it would be fair to say that attention has been diverted from the twists and turns of Brexit.
While it remains the case that Britain’s departure from the EU by Dec. 31 is enshrined in UK law, priorities have changed on both sides of the English Channel, and negotiations have changed too.
Governments have focused on the containment of the pandemic, and Brexit negotiations turned virtual rather than face to face — especially since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier both contracted the virus, and Johnson in particular was seriously incapacitated.
Nevertheless, the deadline remains, and it has become clear over the past two weeks that positions have not changed. The EU insists on access to UK fishing waters and the jurisdiction of EU courts in settling disputes; Britain holds firm on the supremacy of its own judiciary, and wants a trade deal based on that with Canada and a fisheries agreement based on that with Norway.
Each side accuses the other of putting an agreement in jeopardy by refusing to recognize their respective red lines. It is a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
Grandstanding is part of any negotiation, but these are unprecedented times.
Both sides need to deal not just with the healthcare issues from the pandemic, but a looming recession on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s — and we all know how that ended.
Both the EU and the UK need to deal not just with the healthcare issues from the pandemic, but a looming recession on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s — and we all know how that ended.
Globalization has been on the retreat for some time, and the pandemic poses yet another threat. Nation states will look to become more self-sufficient, not just in food, PPE and pharmaceuticals, but in whole sectors. Where that is a challenge, regionalization will be the new normal, and near neighbors more important than ever.
In 2018, 53 percent of the UK’s imports and 45 percent of its exports were with the EU. As Barnier reminded us recently, the EU has 450 million consumers, the UK only 66 million.
Barnier is worried about the UK running down the clock to a departure from the EU without any agreements on the crucial issues, and many within the UK are too. Without compromises on both sides, however, that will be the inevitable result, and the consequences for both the UK and the EU hardly bear contemplating.
For each, the pandemic has required unprecedented and costly rescue programs at a time when tax bases are diminishing. Both will emerge from the pandemic a lot poorer.
If ever there were a time to put affairs with one’s neighbors on a good footing, it is now.
All we can do is hope against hope that something will give, and that we shall see either a last-minute agreement between the two sides or a backtracking from artificial deadlines —enshrined in law or otherwise. –AN