The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is causing political misery for some of the most powerful people on earth. It has, however, left one world leader in a uniquely difficult position.
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, is having to deal with this public health emergency at the same time a clock is ticking on the United Kingdom’s next Brexit deadline: July 1. This pending deadline is far more significant than anything that has happened in the Brexit process to date.
The UK is currently in a transition period with the European Union, set to expire on December 31. The point of this transition was to maintain a standstill in relations between the EU and the UK after Brexit happened on January 31, so to avoid an economic cliff edge.
More analysis on the outbreak
The two sides are currently negotiating their future relationship and hope to reach a mutually beneficial agreement before the end of the year. If they can’t, then the UK leaves the transition period with no formal agreement on trade or any other strategic areas. The joint decision to scrap next week’s round of talks will lead to fears that such an agreement cannot be done in time. Legally, the transition period can be extended, but it would have to be done before July 1 of this year. That’s the point of no return.
Until the transition period ends, the UK is playing by EU rules and paying money for the privilege, but with no seat at the tables of power in Brussels. In other words, it is still essentially an EU member state, but with zero influence on EU policy.
Naturally, this is an uncomfortable position for long-standing Brexiteers – not least Johnson himself, who led the successful leave campaign in 2016. So, it’s hardly surprising that the official position of the British government is that Johnson will not request an extension under any circumstances.
However, that stance was decided before the nation was gripped by coronavirus panic.
“However politically painful it might be for the government, the impact of the coronavirus will reach far beyond the public health implications and into the heart of our economy,” says Wes Streeting, an opposition Labour lawmaker. “In good times, leaving the EU on the timetable announced by the government would be a challenge. Trying to stick to that timetable purely for political reasons would be irresponsible.”
The UK is already living some of those implications. Panic-buying has led to shortages of many everyday household products, most notably toilet paper. And if you think empty shelves are a problem now, consider this: according to the Confederation of Paper Industries, the UK imports about 60% of the materials used to make tissue products from the EU. And up to 55% of that demand is for toilet paper.
Some in Brussels wonder if a time will come when experts advising Johnson tell him that, given the scale of the coronavirus problem, refusing to extend the transition period and throwing trade links and supply chains out the window is a bad idea. And if trade talks with the EU slow because of coronavirus, meaning that nothing has been agreed come June, can Johnson really risk food, medicine and other shortages for the sake of saving face?
“Now that future relationship talks are being interrupted, it is inevitable that both sides will have to start considering possible extensions,” says Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska at the Centre for European Reform, based in Brussels.
However, she adds: “The request should come from the British government and, obviously, an extension wouldn’t come without costs for the UK. Questions, including the financial contributions, will have to be taken. There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
While Brussels might already be thinking about this, the unknown is what Johnson would actually do if he were given the advice to request an extension. And European officials are increasingly convinced that Johnson is still in denial about how serious things could get.
An EU diplomatic source tells CNN: “It doesn’t seem to have sunk in entirely just how different supply chains will look after the transition. Right now, there are hangers full of food sat in ports across Europe. If someone calls at 7 a.m., they can be in British shops that afternoon. The UK imports the vast majority of its toilet paper, so if you kill supply chains you are literally in the s***.”
Two issues collide
Johnson has made a point during the coronavirus outbreak of stressing that the government is making decisions based on the advice it is getting from medical experts. It’s certainly true that Johnson has placed his most senior public health officials front and center in recent weeks. Sources close to Downing Street claim that this approach is being driven by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s most senior adviser.
Cummings is known to be obsessed with scientists, data and evidence, so it stands to reason that he would ask government advisers not to brief and encourage the PM to take his cues from the experts. However, this is the same Dominic Cummings who is driving Johnson’s Brexit agenda and is thought to have been behind the decision to say publicly that there would be no extension under any circumstances.
So, what will happen when these two distinct issues collide? There is no question that requesting an extension would be very difficult and embarrassing for Johnson. “If he doesn’t want an extension then it’s fine, but if he wants one, they [The EU] will have him over a barrel on fishing and financial contributions,” says Hugo Dixon, referring to two of the thorniest issues currently blighting negotiations. “It’s not just that he will have to go back on his word of no extension under no circumstances, he will have to bite those two bitter pills.”
How coronavirus is changing the world
Exactly how damaging requesting an extension could be for Johnson would have to be weighed against the fallout of no deal, or a very limited trade deal. “It’s entirely possible that the UK suffers a recession in the coming months because of coronavirus, only to then have another recession because of Brexit,” says Dixon.
While back-to-back recessions would seem difficult for any leader to ride out, Brexit has done weird things to the UK’s domestic politics. As the diplomatic source explains: “Johnson has already laid the groundwork domestically to frame no deal as a fight against EU colonialism versus the UK being able to do what it wants.”
Dixon believes that this could be the easiest political option for Johnson. “He could bite all the bullets at once and try to ride it out before 2024, when we are out the woods and he can fight an election.”
For the time being, no deal with Europe seems to be the logical endpoint. Dmitry Grozoubinski, founder of explaintrade.com, says that while the Covid-19 crisis could “focus minds on the need to find a compromise,” it could also “rob the negotiations of all political attention, removing any pressure from politicians to back off their currently irreconcilable red lines and leading to a WTO-Brexit crashout largely on autopilot.”
It seems likely when you consider that the EU’s patience for British politics wore thin ages ago. “We are moving to the stage where we don’t really care, whatever they do,” says the diplomatic source.
And while the source believes that the coronavirus gives Johnson “a way out if he does want to delay for a year,” they point out that it “has to come in June – legally, that is the deadline.”
However, some hold onto the slim hope that the evidence becomes so compelling Johnson has to listen. Gostyńska-Jakubowska points out that when Johnson drew his red lines, “we didn’t have Covid-19. This might encourage the British government to listen to business more carefully.” And Dixon reminds us that Johnson has form for folding when the need for an agreement with Brussels is great: “The EU won’t have forgotten that he essentially gave them everything they wanted last October.”
Both Johnson and the EU are currently close to capacity dealing with the coronavirus crisis. And as the July 1 deadline races up on Johnson, he is likely going to face pressure to consider extending the Brexit transition to avoid economic catastrophe. “Short-term political pain for Boris is a price worth paying when compared with the medium to long-term risks of getting something like this badly wrong,” says Streeting.
The great unknown is whether Johnson – and Cummings – can be convinced that the risk of going beyond the point of return this summer is really bad enough to perform what would be a staggering U-turn. And though we might not know what they think now, we won’t have to wait long to find out.