Sunday, 15 March 2020

Britain must seek an extension to the transition.

Brexit to me was necessary because of the way we are governed. Decision are made over the heads of people without their knowledge or consent and without the means to undo or correct them. But Brexit alone is no remedy. Part of the problem was the British establishment gradually ceding ever more powers and signing up to treaties without informed consent and with little in the way of public debate.

One of the greatest outrages was the way in which Lisbon went through on the nod, without any real understanding of what we were getting into. Certainly we did not have the kind of national debate we've had over the last four years. 

This is why the UK must now seek an extension to Brexit negotiations. Corona has absorbed media and public attention. We can't have deals done with the EU without proper scrutiny or informed public consent. That's why we voted to leave. That principle still stands.

As I understand it there is a draft UK proposal doing the rounds, which should have had an airing by the media but little has been said of it. Even if it were given a worthwhile airing by the media, consumers of news wouldn't make time for it simply because there is something massively more important, urgent and interesting going on.

But then there is also a requirement to reappraise our objectives. Thus far the debate as centred around the nuts and bolts of trade without much space given over to the other strands of cooperation such as defence and medicines. Insofar as Brexit has featured in the Corona debate, the issue of our EMA membership calls into question what happens in the event of a Corona vaccine. 

Then as the UK needs to think again on its priorities, so does the EU. We do not yet know the fullest extent of the economic fallout or the political fallout from Corona, but it is sure to present the EU with some fundamental existential questions. Certainly questions will be asked over freedom of movment. It may not be politically sustainable. Member states are unilaterally closing their borders. This could kill Schengen stone dead. 

Then, of course, there are questions to be asked about "free trade". Corona brings into question the concept of globally distributed supply chains, which in this instance could be a major liability in terms getting equipment and resources where they are needed. Right now it seems to be every man for himself, and if you don't have domestic production of strategic essentials then you are stuffed.

As this blog has noted, much of the single market is built on the basis of just in time economics with virtually no reserve capacity anywhere in the system - which is why we are so fatally vulnerable in the event of no deal. The single market can meet the varied demands of consumers in optimal conditions but Corona changes everything, very possibly forever. 

Without a Corona cooling off period, any deal struck would likely lack legitimacy, and would almost certainly need to be revisited in the future. Moreover, with things as uncertain as they are, the last thing we need is further uncertainty and distractions for the civil service that will have enough on its plate for the foreseeable future.

If the Tories go ahead and use Corona as a smokescreen to leave without a deal or sing up to a quick and dirty deal, as much as they will inflict greater harm on the economy than we are already destined to suffer, we would pretty much be back where we started - ie. a feral government doing as it pleases without proper scrutiny and without public debate. 

That then bodes ill for British democracy. With an opposition in a permanently weakened state, the opposition is little more then an ineffectual lobbyist in a one party state where the ruling party can be entirely selective about when it listens to parliament. Effectively we would have replicated the EU system of government where elections are largely meaningless and public particpation cannot take control of the agenda. We'll simply have exchanged a technocratic autocracy in Brussels for a much less effective one in London, with the same problems of transparency and legitimacy.

The case for maintaining the transition is obvious. Right now we need some stability and leave things in a state where they can be resumed in the light of day. For the time being normal business for the UK and EU goes on the back burner and I suspect a lot of the rules will be suspended. What happens in the interim will be a learning curve for both sides as to which modes of cooperation neither side can afford to throw away.

Ultimately our systems have evolved without global pandemics in mind. We have grown complacent and our contingency planning is poor, but more than that, our trade agreements, regulatory systems and standards are inadequate if we are to build in future resilience. Because of that there is a danger all the trade progress we have made in the last three decades could all fall apart. We need to save what we can but move forward to ensure whatever comes next resembles the wishes of the public - whatever they may be when the dust settles. After this, politics will never be the same again. 

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