When It’s Over

It is possible that the economic and social chaos inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic will overwhelm us and that questions about the ‘big issues of yesterday’ will then appear wholly irrelevant or painfully trivial. But all that aside, we face three Brexit scenarios.

The first is a fully-fledged UK/EU trade deal, agreed and implemented by the end of the year. It never looked likely and, faced with the overwhelming need to manage the economic and social fallout of the coronavirus emergency, that now looks impossible.

The second scenario is the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal at the end of the year. Really? Any such possibility may now seem beyond imagining. As a matter of practicality, there is no real possibility, given the pressures of the pandemic, that the government, much less business, has the capacity to design and put in place the arrangements needed to manage a crash out any more than they could implement a trade deal. What is more, with a recession now being treated as inevitable, but its depth and length unmeasurable, only a government with eschatological yearnings would add to the already unavoidable economic collapse, social havoc and uncertainty by tearing up its existing trade and other relations with its closest international partners and its biggest single market.

The third, and some would say only feasible or even possible scenario, is effectively to postpone Brexit by either extending the transition period or reproducing the substance of that extension in what could be relabelled a trade deal. That being so, the question is, when the pandemic has passed, and the economy and society have recovered, will the determination to isolate the UK be reinforced or weakened? Either is possible. Much will depend on how the current emergency develops, is managed and, when over, is perceived.

If, like Trump and John of Gaunt, the pandemic is perceived as being an “Infection… of less happier lands”, a hard Brexit may be just the beginning of an increasingly isolationist UK and world-order. If, however, it is understood that no country is “Entire of itself” and the pandemic is seen as demonstrating the harsh realities of global integration, Brexit may be much softened as part of a general recognition and realisation of the need to meet global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change, with global measures.

By Peter G Harris -  Barrister, now teaching at Exeter College, University of Oxford, and former senior civil servant

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For more of Peter's work, see here.