Sunday, 22 March 2020

Corona: a rebirth moment?

Coronavirus is bloody inconvenient. As much as it knocks everything else off the agenda, it rewrites the script entirely. All of our base assumptions about the shape of the future relationship with the EU have gone out the window. Some of the more hardline positions take on a certain wisdom when faced with a disruption of this nature. Moreover, with imminent shortages and a repurposing of industry, what and how we export is something of a moot point for the time being.

Moreover with this being a global pandemic, with resources stretched to the max, it's becoming every man for himself. As to rules and regulations, they all go on the backburner. Getting things done is more important than compliance right now. You can either be compliant or fast but not both. This is happening in the private sector as well as in government. Hiring and firing policies are going on the bonfire while the governments won't give EU rules a nanosecond's thought in their response to Corona.

This is where the EU has to tread carefully. It can't be seen to be doing anything to obstruct mitigation or containment measures and apart from the PR fluff there's not a lot it can do but get out of the way. All the while it is vulnerable. Member states will be taking credit for any successes while seeking to blame the EU or accuse it of inaction. All the while, borders are closing and the normal rules of trade don't apply.

Never has the EU looked less relevant to people's lives and it looks weaker now than it ever has. I don't say this from a biased leave perspective, rather it appears to be a matter of fact. People are tuned into their national governments while the messages coming from EU institutions are bland, generic and a touch desperate.

Meanwhile, the politics has changed substantially. The panic buying and viral pictures of empty shelves underscores the need for resilience in our supply chains, where questions will now be asked as to whether we can afford to have strategic production offshored to aggressor nations like China. Economic nationalism is coming back with a vengeance. We have already seen some irrationally militant views over British fishing, but now feeding the nation becomes deadly serious business. Agriculture has long been taken for granted, with Tory advisors recently suggesting Britain doesn't need farming. It's a brave man who would venture that opinion in public now.

Corona has exposed the hubris that underpins the entire world trading system. It can adapt to small wars, shortages, trade spats and political uncertainty, but a global pandemic resets the clock on the whole system. Both the EU and the WTO will face a number of existential questions. Once the rules are brought into question there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Strategic protection is back in fashion. It could undo decades of trade progress.

The EU could attempt to issue penalties for the more serious abuses but in the end it's pissing into the wind. By the time this is over, there'll be a decades' worth of casework backlog to attend to that will more than likely never see the light of day. It will have to take an amnesty approach, after which its authority is forever compromised. The only power it has is the faith placed in it by member states - which is only ever when it's convenient.

As to where this leaves us with Brexit I don't know. The EU will try to restore some of its own order and uphold the basis of its rules but that might be difficult when even member states are not cooperating. All the while the UK will not be in any mind to sign up to anything binding if there is the slightest risk of it impacting our economic reconstruction efforts. To a very large extent, EU model FTAs are a luxury item for stable economies. I'm not sure any of us now qualifies.

Then, of course, there are political opportunities to exploit. There are some disruptions I had previously thought too radical a departure from the status quo, but again, that is a now a moot point. Corona is no deal Brexit on steroids - where it's worth asking if it even matters whether we have a deal right now. Is there much between crashing out or maintaining the transition since neither side is really in much of a position to do anything about it? There simply isn't the resource or political runtime.

It could be that, given the circumstances, a no deal scenario would see the UK making temporary bilateral arrangements with member states that wouldn't previously have been politically possible. That may become the norm thus undermining the EU. There's a game to be played if we're smart about it - but unwise to venture forth until the dust settles.

Grim though Corona is, it is also an opportunity to rethink the fundamentals of our society, not least our relationship with food. Much of our consumer spending is predicated on cheap food underpinned by exploitation and unfair competition in the haulage industry and and heavily reliant on migrant workers, mostly from Africa, who pick fruit and vegetables for a pittance and live in overcrowded tent camps and shantytowns in Italy and Spain.

Meanwhile in the UK, it is not a fringe opinion in the British livestock industry that meat shouldn't be cheap and shouldn't be a daily commodity. I feel the same way about off season fruit and veg. Our convenience approach to food makes us unhealthy and frees up time we do not usefully use. One thing Peter Hitchens is right about - the underlying conditions that will kill us when we get Corona are those caused by our obese, sedentary lifestyles. It's also not unconnected to our poor mental health.

Moreover, it cannot be right that we are importing workers to work the fields for us. Now that Corona has wiped out a number of jobs, there is no shortage of people available for those jobs we allegedly "won't do". I suspect there will be a lot of soul searching to come in the near future as Corona holds up a mirror to British culture, especially when order starts to break down. There will be a number of areas where it will be glaringly apparent that we cannot afford to neglect certain ongoing concerns any longer - and we shall have to start making serious demands. 

All the old certainties are now gone. The petty obsessions of Brexit watchers on both sides are obsolete. The future is now a blank cheque. We know things are bad and set to get worse, and the geopolitical situation could rapidly deteriorate too. This could go beyond even my worst nightmares. That said, I can't be the only one who sees a silver lining. I've long felt we were in a phase of managed decline. With Corona as an accelerant, it could be a rebirth moment for British society. This is certainly the end of the normal I have known - and I'm not sorry about it. 

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