Monday, 9 March 2020

This is no time to self-isolate from Europe

It's ironic that I've spent the last few years warning that a mishandled Brexit could see empty shelves, a collapse of supply chains and a recession, and now we're almost there it looks like Corona virus makes it a certainty no matter what happens. If it is as serious as it now looks then we're in for a grim year.

At this point, whatever norms and assumptions we were working from go out the window. This is the point where politics takes over entirely and we see rapidly shifting attitudes. There is nothing quite so unreasonable as people when they're afraid, and with the media loving every minute of it, this will go stratospheric.

This is quite an unenviable position for the government to be in. They'll be dusting off all of their contingency plans to find they are barely adequate to the task. All the while the government has to make a number of judgement calls where it can't win either way. Some will accuse it of taking draconian measures while others will slam them for inaction and negligence.

The political fallout could be massive both in the near and long term. Businesses will have to be compensated, benefits must be paid, sick pay must be organised, hospitals must be upgraded and cleaned. There's a raft of unknowables that go with it. There will be scandals.

All the while Corona virus is going to prove a useful vehicle for opportunists of all stripes wanting to push their agendas. The politics of Brexit and disease control are sure to collide. Do we still want light touch customs in airports? How "frictionless" should trade be if we are to see an upsurge in people smuggling and trafficking? And with the refugee crisis worsening, and politics in the east deteriorating, with EU diplomatic efforts looking ineffectual, how long before member states start taking matters into their own hands while looking for abridgements of EU rules?

Sooner or later we could see a toxic combination of corona panic and fear of mass immigration develop into something quite ugly. It is reported by Deutsche Welle that armed Greek civilians have begun patrolling the Greek-Turkish border region. They say they are helping keep villages safe and protect private property. There is enormous potential for an ugly incident that could spark wider unrest. Corona gives the Visegrad countries the pretext they need to do virtually anything.

On Sunday the Hungarian government moved to close camps or “transit zones” for asylum seekers along its southern border with Serbia, stating that “corona virus and illegal migration go hand in hand”. The moment there is evidence of infection in the refugees and asylum seekers, we will see the mood harden very rapidly.

Meanwhile, things are looking uglier in the Balkans. An estimated 130,000 migrants on the Balkans route are headed for the European Union - and Serbians are seemingly not happy about it. This is a politics where only fools rush in - so we can expect the EU to pile in any day now.

In short, for all that remainers have been retailing the notion that Brexit makes us a global pariah and an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, with things being as they are, Brexit could end up looking like a political irrelevance, especially if the media is distracted with more urgent matters. As the rest of Europe slides into chaos, with an actual far right on the march, with more dangerous incidents linked to Corona fears highly probable, Britain might look like a relatively stable safehaven.

Of course, this is all wild speculation all largely depending on how serous Corona virus really is, which could have a bark worse than its bite, but this seems to strike close to home in the way that SARS and Ebola didn't. This one is likely the one that reshapes attitudes and politics for the next decade. 

If there's one thing that's clear, Brits may want to self-isolate from Corona, but we can't afford to self-isolate from European politics. Just because we are leaving the EU, we cannot wash our hands of our political and moral obligations, not least because escalation in the East very much is our problem. Disease prevention costs money and requires an active foreign policy. It is with some irony that Britain now has to be more European than it ever has been.  

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