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So, about Brexit... Where are we now with it?

It hasn’t gone away, you know.

Boris Johnson delivers his 'Unleashing Britain's Potential' speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich (3 February 2020).
Boris Johnson delivers his 'Unleashing Britain's Potential' speech in the Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College Greenwich (3 February 2020).
Image: Frank Augstein

WE THOUGHT THAT Brexit was an unbelievable, fantastic tale of twists and turns, but it’s been utterly eclipsed by the Covid-19 pandemic – a global moment that could remould our lives and societies. 

But Brexit hasn’t gone to ground either, and the processes to make it a reality have been ticking away quietly in the background. At the moment, there’s still a deadline – of 30 June – by which the UK will have to decide if it’s asking for an extension to the time frame for arranging a trade deal with the EU.

Incredibly, the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to entertain the idea of extending the transition period, despite a Covid-19 pandemic sucking up government resources.

Almost 50 of the UK’s top civil servants have been taken off the Brexit trade negotiating team, and instead redeployed to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic response in the UK.

Despite this, senior minister Michael Gove has said he would put the chances of securing a free trade agreement between London and Brussels at “better than two to one”.

The trade deal is going to be integral to the UK’s post-EU future: how easy will it be for British companies to export to EU member states? What tariffs will there be on exports into the UK, which Irish companies will be keenly watching?

How strict will customs arrangements be for Northern Ireland, which will ultimately answer the question of whether there will be a hard border down the Irish Sea? 

Northern Ireland

Speaking to a Select Committee on the future relationship with the European Union and on post-Brexit negotiations this week, Michael Gove, a UK Cabinet minister who is tasked with Brexit preparation in the UK, was asked why Johnson’s government has opposed an EU office in Northern Ireland.

The EU Commission has requested a technical base in Northern Ireland in order to ensure its custom rules and standards are being adhered to after the transition period closes at the end of this year.

It was revealed last week that British cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt had written to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to reject the EU’s proposal for an EU Commission office in the North. 

belgium-eu-brexit The European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the UK Michel Barnier. Source: Olivier Matthys

Speaking about that rejection, Gove said that it “is not necessary” to have a “mini embassy” in the North.

Of course we will support the EU in making sure [the protocol is being carried out as it should be]… I don’t think it’s necessary to have a mission in Belfast in order to do that.

“We hope that we can reach an arrangement that we are doing everything required to make sure the protocol is being adhered to,” he said.

There is a lot we still don’t know about how the Northern Ireland protocol would work in practice – it depends on how close the UK-EU trading relationship will be, and what practice the special committee set up to examine this issue concludes.

For example, it was suggested that tax owed on products destined for Ireland/the EU would be paid to the UK, which would then pass it onto the EU; but it wasn’t clear how much oversight the EU would want, and whether it would need its own officials along the custom and regulatory Irish Sea border.

On this issue, Gove said:

“Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the UK, so while we’ll make sure the EU has all information it needs, these are checks that will have to be carried out by UK officials.”

Meanwhile, businesses in Northern Ireland are left in the lurch. As Wesley Aston, the CEO  of the Ulster Farmers Union told a UK committee this week:

It’s a case of how you marry what the government and the Prime Minister have committed to in terms of unfettered access, and what everybody else’s understanding of what unfettered access actually is.

Precious time

There are just two weeks of negotiations between the EU and UK on trade left.

On 15 April, the scheduled talks between Brussels and London were concentrated into just three weeks, on the weeks commencing: 20 April, 11 May and 1 June. 

On the time left to agree a deal, Gove has said: “In some respects it (the outbreak) should concentrate the minds of the EU negotiators, reinforcing the importance of coming to an agreement.”

brexit Michael Gove giving evidence by videolink to MPs during a UK committee about Brexit. Source: PA

He said that although a lot has changed, some of the organisations arguing for extensions now, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, had argued for an extension before, “so that while things have changed, they also have not changed”.

It would involve spending more money in the EU at a time when that money can be spent on our National Health Service, it will involve us accepting not just existing EU acquis [legislation, court decisions, etc], but EU laws shaped in the EU 27 rather than the UK as well. 

“If we accept an extension, the incentive to come to an agreement would dissipate.”

Claiming that extending the transition period would cost “billions” of pounds, he said:

I think, experience tells us that deadlines concentrate minds, whenever a deadline was extended, the light at the end of the tunnel became more tunnel.

“We’re not going to extend the transition period,” he added definitively.

Other than that, how are negotiations going?

“They regard the UK not as a sovereign state, but on the path to EU membership.”

That is Gove’s impression of how negotiations are going. 

The UK has been asking for an ‘off-the-shelf’ trade deal with the EU – instead of negotiating the tiny minutia of what will be allowed to be traded between the two, what will be subjected to high tariffs, and what regulations the two will need to be agreed, etc.

The UK is looking for a trade deal similar to Japan or Canada, if not a bit closer than that, and fishing arrangements similar to that with Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands.

When asked how prepared the UK was for a no-deal situation, Gove said that because of the Withdrawal Agreement “there’s no such thing now as a no-deal situation”.

When questioned on what the final date was, whereby businesses would be told if there is to be no trade deal struck, Gove initially said that would be an unhelpful thing to do:

If we say ‘Unless you’ve done it by Michaelmas, then we’re going to do this or that’, I don’t think that would be helpful at this stage. 

But when repeatedly pressured on it by MP Peter Bone, he eventually admitted:

If I did have a date in mind, then it would be wrong of me to tell it. 

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