Pro-European groups should focus now on a campaign to extend the Brexit transition period

Major pro-EU groups are coming together to campaign for the UK to agree with the EU, in the transformed global setting of the COVID-19 pandemic, to postpone by two years the hard end-date of the UK’s exit transition period. Colin Gordon (Oxford for Europe)* sets the scene.

The case for extending the Brexit transition period is now increasingly supported in Parliament and business, both in the UK and in the EU. The shortness of negotiating time left before the 30 June deadline to agree an extension of the transition period beyond its 31 December endpoint greatly increases the risk of a no-deal exit, a result actively sought by Brexiter forces inside and outside government. Our top priority must be to avoid being manipulated into this worst-case outcome: an extension to the transition allows the necessary time to negotiate, and gives us a chance to secure  the least worst set of future trade and other arrangements for a UK which has left the EU.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, extension of the transition period needs to be agreed with the EU by the end of June. So far, the UK government has remained stubbornly opposed to such action. But COVID-19 may well be a game-changer. A recent Focaldata poll[1] commissioned by Best for Britain and Hope Not Hate shows a massive public majority now in favour of a transition extension. The poll of more than 2,000 people found that 66% of the public believe the UK government ‘should focus 100% of its energy on dealing with the coronavirus (pandemic) for the rest of the year’. Nearly half of Conservative and Leave voters support an extension. So pro-Europeans arguing for transition extension have a strong support base outside their own camp. However, we need to move fast, and be ready to regroup quickly in June.

Extension of the transition is a tactical and procedural objective that can unite people who may well differ about their desired final goal, but agree on what they want to avoid. Such alliances may be uncomfortable, but sometimes they are necessary. Meanwhile, those campaigning for an extension of the transition from a pro-EU standpoint can be open about their views and are fully entitled also to:

  • campaign in favour of short and long-term outcomes following Brexit that provide the closest possible UK relationship to the EU;
  • promote close UK-EU links and friendship in all areas;
  • safeguard the wellbeing and rights of UK expatriates and EU27 nationals in the UK; and
  • hold government robustly to account for its Brexiter policies and their consequences.

Different players may choose to focus effort on different messages, targeting different audiences. This may be a good way to distribute our efforts. But we must consider some objections to this plan.

What’s not to like? Three objections.

  1. Too little time, too many obstacles. The government has legislated to prevent a transition extension, and is now stalling and backtracking with clear intent to block the chance of either an extension or an agreed deal. We now have only a few weeks left to mount an effective public campaign for extension. Some may say the case is now hopeless. However Best of Britain, mindful of these concerns, last week published a report[2] backed by its  opinion poll, setting out a clear diplomatic and legislative pathway to an acceptable extension agreement under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement by June 30th. It also  points out a previously unnoticed alternative route which would still remain open after June 30th – an agreement by the UK and EU states to amend the Withdrawal Agreement itself.
  2. Worries about legitimacy. Some (ex-)Remainers fear that a move to extend the transition will be labelled as yet another undemocratic Remainer plot to sabotage or impede Brexit, acting now in defiance of a new and clear parliamentary majority. The accusation will certainly be made, but if transition extension is also supported by Conservative Leavers and non-political business lobbies, it will be unlikely to stick.
  3. The great Brexit learning experience. Some ardent Rejoiners believe that the British public will only learn the reality of what Brexit means when Brexit happens. The sooner they learn this, the argument goes, the harder the Brexit, the better the chances of winning public backing to undo Brexit and rejoin the EU. But sitting back and letting Brexiters drive us over the cliff may not have the salutary educational effect on the public we hope – it could instead enable a downward spiral into right-wing authoritarian populism.

COVID-19 changes everything

The COVID-19 catastrophe changes just about everything. Our lives, our worlds and our futures are being modified daily. We need to reassess how in particular the landscape of debate about Brexit has been transformed by this seismic event.

COVID-19 gives us two powerful new arguments for a Brexit transition extension. One of these (the ‘one crisis at a time’ argument) is, as the new poll shows, supported by significant Conservative and pro-Leave opinion.  The pandemic will test to the limit the capabilities of our state and the resilience of our economy and society. During 2020, at least, we will not have the capacity to tolerate the additional disruptive impact of an ill-prepared and chaotic Brexit.

The other complementary argument, which may well come increasingly to weigh with broad sectors of public opinion, is the unflattering new light which the COVID-19 experience throws on the Brexit project and the pro-Brexit faction which dominates the current government.

Perversely, the UK, a state which has left EU in order to repatriate powers it never lost, unilaterally chooses to leave its borders wide open and its population unprotected from lethal infection. Serious questions have been raised about the government’s apparent doctrinaire refusal to participate in EU programmes to procure ventilators, tests and Personal Protective Equipment.  A decade of malignant ideological austerity has left vital protective public health systems downsized and dysfunctional. Urgent warnings of our lack of pandemic readiness have been suppressed and ignored by Brexiter governments since 2016. Science policy advice on national biosecurity is manipulated by spin-doctors. The old and vulnerable have been left to die unseen, untreated and alone, while health and care professionals have been sent with inadequate protection into harm’s way, for many at the cost of their lives. The growing UK pandemic death-toll, much of it avoidable, is already the highest in Europe and outnumbers deaths in the WW2 Blitz.

The emerging evidence of our Government’s negligent, if not homicidal handling of COVID-19 may well motivate the public to ask  sober, sceptical questions about the extreme Brexit project which continues to be aggressively promoted by the same politicians. Does the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic give us a foretaste of the ‘new normal’ after a no-deal Brexit? Amid mass death and economic decimation, are we content to let Brexiters double down on no-deal? If not, now is the time for all concerned citizens to speak.

*  Thanks to Nick Hopkinson, Andy Pye, Juliet Mayer and Gareth Steel for editing, suggestions and comments. Opinions are the author’s.