By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
If the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had never spread and the pandemic was just a nightmare scenario dreamt up by epidemiologists, the British public would still be debating one thing and one thing only — Brexit.
It took a global pandemic to knock the “B” word off our front pages. It has certainly done that. Scenarios that were met with fear and alarm over the last three years, notably a no-deal Brexit, are increasingly becoming more likely.
Six months ago, a UK decision not to seek any extension to trade talks would have monopolized headlines for days and triggered furious debates. Yet, on June 12, when the UK did formally notify the EU that it would not be seeking an extension to the transition period, which it had to do by July 1, it barely registered. Last December’s election and the handsome Conservative victory seemingly put the “Remainers” into retirement, if not extinction, and Britain left the EU on Jan. 31. However, ensuring a no-deal Brexit is avoided is still vital for British and EU businesses.
Whatever happens now, the UK will leave the customs union and single market at the end of the transition period on Dec. 31. There will be consequences at the borders, with controls and checks regardless of whether or not there is a deal. It will herald an extraordinary change that most are not prepared for — or even understand — but will this exit be with a handshake and a smile or chaos and bitterness?
These negotiations are tough and technically complex, and are not made any easier by having to use video links. Remember that all 27 EU states have to agree, as well as Britain and the European Parliament. Any one country can stall or block a deal. This is also the first time the EU is negotiating a deal with a country that was formerly part of the EU. Britain is a novice at doing trade deals, this having been an EU competence for decades.
Four rounds of talks have offered little sign of progress. All sides adopted maximalist positions, unwilling to be the first to blink. Halfway through the talks, much time has been wasted. The ticking clock seems to be the only motivating force, as all sides know they have to arrive at a deal for their own economic and security interests but are unwilling to compromise prior to the last minute of the last hour. This approach undermines the potential success of this process and, in all likelihood, will lead to a poor deal or no deal at all.
One option is a so-called “skinny deal” — a less ambitious trade deal that would not cover all sectors. It may be easier to bring to a conclusion, but some argue this may actually be harder to pass than a full-blown deal, as there will not be so many areas for give and take.
At least the mood music from last week’s video summit between British and EU leaders sounded more positive than expected. But many hard yards (or meters) remain ahead. All sides agreed to more intense talks in July. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told President Emmanuel Macron of France that the talks have to be wrapped up soon, with there being no point in continuing them into the fall. He wants the outline of the deal sorted out before the end of next month. Germany is pushing for a more realistic target of September.
Where are the main friction points? Fishing rights constitute one of the toughest hurdles — a surprise, perhaps, given that it is such a small percentage of the gross domestic product of all parties. The EU has made it clear that a fisheries deal is essential if there is to be a trade deal; a position that may have hardened given the impact on EU fisheries during the pandemic. Eight EU states see consistent access to British waters as vital to their interests. For British Brexiteers, however, returning the country to being an independent coastal nation was meant to be one of the triumphs of leaving the EU.
Another troublesome issue is security cooperation. The baffling British position of not desiring any formal foreign policy links with the EU means that intelligence sharing will be less intense, military ties will be downgraded and the UK won’t have access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.
Dispute resolution is also being debated. In this, Britain refuses to accept a role for the European Court of Justice, which has long been a bugbear of the “Leave” brigades. That said, progress has finally been made on an agreement on the extradition of criminals to replace the European Arrest Warrant system.
The UK is also not happy with the EU’s insistence that it has to stick with a regulatory “level playing field.” It does not want its hands tied by EU regulations, for example on environmental standards.
Can Britain afford a no-deal outcome? The fear is that, while a healthy British economy could have pulled through the Brexit difficulties, the COVID-19 pandemic means both the British and EU economies are exceptionally fragile.
Other free trade deals could limit the damage. Australia and New Zealand are content to start negotiations with an eye on easier access for agricultural products. A much-cherished deal with the US will also be key. Time has pretty much run out to complete this deal in 2020, with thorny issues including the UK health sector and food and animal welfare standards still to be resolved.
The domestic climate is once again changing. Six months ago, Johnson reigned supreme. Today, voter confidence in his government is on the wane. Its abject failure to stem the coronavirus outbreak in Britain, with the country’s excess deaths eight times higher than in Germany, has undermined it. The widespread perception is that the UK moved to lockdown too late and has lost a grip on the situation. This has not inspired confidence that the government will master these Brexit trade talks or prepare effectively for a no-deal outcome.
The situation currently bears all the hallmarks of a messy divorce, rather than a collaborative shared future. Accelerating negotiations is vital, but it still feels like all sides are playing poker — the chips being the economic livelihoods of European and British citizens. It is time to stop playing games.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech