In times of the Corona pandemic it is difficult to imagine that not long ago other issues were making the headlines. For the EU one such issue was Brexit. For those who might have forgotten: the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, officially left in January 2020 and is currently in a transition phase during which existing EU rules apply and a new relationship is meant to be established. This transition phase will end in December 2020.
Currently the Corona crisis dominates the headlines
Since early March the Corona pandemic has filled the headlines and it sometimes feels as if Brexit had never happened.
But Brexit has not gone away and anyone who believes – or hopes – that the existential Corona crisis might have softened the British government’s stance on Brexit will be disappointed.
The Brexiters see themselves unswervingly on the way to the promised land
For hardline Brexiteers – and this is the majority of cabinet members in Prime Minister Johnson’s government – the Corona crisis is merely a major disturbance on their way to the promised land. Just to make clear that the British government’s view on Brexit has remained unchanged, various senior politicians have recently reminded the public that the UK would categorically not seek an extension to the transition phase (such decision would have to be made in June) and that the country would walk away from any EU deal involving a level playing field.
The government in London sees all the cards in their hand
At least in public the British government continues to claim that it holds all the cards. After all, not accepting British demands in a new trade agreement would not be in Europe’s economic interest.
For the remaining EU member states agreeing on a future trading relationship with the United Kingdom always represented a trade off: on the one hand, the more comprehensive the trade agreement the more limited would be the economic damage of Brexit; on the other hand, any agreement seen to be giving too much ground to the UK could undermine European cohesion and the Single Market.
The British path is becoming increasingly unattractive
While Brexit certainly was not the only or even most important policy issue for European policy makers, the amount of time and resources required to negotiate a future relationship played no major role in these deliberations – these would be found as needed.
The Corona pandemic might have changed all this. Compared with the Corona crisis, Brexit appears like a minor nuisance – a car accident compared to a nuclear meltdown.
Desperate to demonstrate some European solidarity, European leaders might be even less inclined than previously to grant any major concessions to a third country. The prospect of going it alone will also be much more daunting for the UK in a world, which will most likely turn inward and become more protectionist. European policy makers will be fully aware of that.
Rather invest time and effort in Europe’s future!
Most importantly though, constrained by extremely stretched resources – time, money, politicians’ bandwidth to engage – pandering to what ultimately amounts to British exceptionalism cannot be seen as time and effort well spent. Time and effort which could be used much more constructively rebuilding Europe’s future. Getting this right could deliver economic returns, which could dwarf any economic upsides from a future trade agreement with the UK.
For the EU27, the priorities should be clear.