To help defeat coronavirus, we must campaign for a 2 year extension | Nick Hopkinson
Wall to wall coverage of Brexit has understandably given way to our urgent need to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. But as the 30 June deadline to extend the negotiations on our future EU relationship rapidly approaches, the fallout from Brexit is again rising up the political agenda.
The UK faces a likely double whammy, one a public health and economic crisis, and the other an entirely unnecessary government-made fiasco. Government machinery is now almost entirely consumed by the urgent effort to defeat COVID-19. We simply cannot afford to crash out of global arrangements, notably trade, without an EU agreement, whilst at the same time as trying to defeat the pandemic. As former Chancellor Alistair Darling stated "It's madness to contemplate shooting yourself in the foot on an entirely man-made political decision at a time when you don't need to do that". Sir Ed Davey and others have accordingly called for an extension to the negotiations.
The COVID-19 crisis though provides excellent cover for the Conservative Government and ideological EUphobes to progress their dream of the hardest of Brexits. The adverse effects of crashing out without a deal could fairly easily be confused with and be blamed on adverse effects of the pandemic, rather than attributed to the Government's damaging EUphobic policy itself.
On 16 April Chief UK negotiator David Frost tweeted:
As we prepare for the next Rounds of negotiations, I want to reiterate the Government's position on the transition period created following our withdrawal from the EU. Transition ends on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks we will say no. Extending would simply prolong negotiations, create even more uncertainty, leave us liable to pay more to the EU in future, and keep us bound by evolving EU laws at a time when we need to control our own affairs. In short, it is not in the UK's interest to extend.
In reality, Brexit itself is the source of business uncertainty. We shall have to be bound by internationally agreed rules anyway, particularly on trade. Continued access to the Single Market far outweighs the costs of paying into the EU budget. The Treasury predicted 15 years after a hard Brexit, UK GDP would be 9.3% smaller than if we stayed in the EU. The damage of a hard Brexit would be on top of that from the coronavirus pandemic: Morgan Stanley has projected a 5.1% GDP fall for all of 2020.
Public opinion increasingly supports an extension. A 19-20 March 2020 YouGov poll found a majority (55%) supported an extension to the transition period (with 24% opposed). A Parliamentary petition to extend the transition had gained 53,400 signatories as of 23 April.
The deadline to extend is 30 June, not the end of 2020, so the matter is increasingly urgent. Although 30 June is not a point of no return, an extension is more legally and politically difficult thereafter.
Defeating the pandemic should be the Government's sole focus for months to come. To compound it with a hard Brexit would be sheer reckless folly. Questions surrounding the Government's slow response to the pandemic and the UK's above average national pandemic death rate should add pressure on the Government to abandon its reckless and irresponsible insistence on completing negotiations this year.
We need to campaign strongly for a two year extension to the transition period to help ensure we defeat coronavirus as soon as possible.
Nick Hopkinson is vice-chair of LDEG and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This article was first published on Liberal Democrat Voice on 24 April.