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31 March 2020

Will Boris Johnson be forced to extend the UK’s Brexit transition period?

The Prime Minister risks compounding one economic shock with another if the UK abruptly leaves the European single market and customs union this year. 

By Patrick Maguire

Will the Covid-19 pandemic force Boris Johnson to seek another Brexit extension? That’s the demand from the largest grouping in the European Parliament this week. 

In a statement yesterday, the European People’s Party – the centre-right bloc that includes both Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael – called on Johnson to do “the sensible thing” and delay the transition period beyond the end of this year. While it does not speak for those governments, it does provide a strong indication of what they will end up saying come the crunch. 

The UK government’s timetable was already considered ambitious – perhaps delusionally so – well before anyone in Westminster or Brussels had heard of the novel coronavirus. Johnson, however, chose to do as his predecessor did and lash himself to a hard deadline – with 31 December enshrined in law and any extension to the transition ruled out. 

Will that stance hold? If you listen to Downing Street, the answer is apparently yes: they insist that there will be no further delay. Despite the fact that Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has been diagnosed with the virus – and his British counterpart David Frost is self-isolating with symptoms – the optimistic belief in government is essentially that negotiations can migrate to Zoom and all will be well. 

The EU disagrees. Trade negotiations – particularly for a deal as comprehensive as that sought by Johnson – involve dozens, if not hundreds, of negotiators on each side. Taking them online will not be straightforward.

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Then there is the altogether more pertinent question of Whitehall’s limited bandwidth. Right now, ministers and officials have little time to deal with anything but the government’s response to Covid-19, as any MP or civil servant will tell you. With the situation even graver across much of Europe and with no sign of normal business resuming this side of the summer, it seems unlikely – to put it mildly – that either the UK or EU27 will have the time to thrash out that trade deal to its already unrealistic original deadline.

Or to put it another way: will the consequences of the government missing an ultimately arbitrary deadline on Brexit be graver than continuing to miss the 10,000-a-day target for Covid-19 tests, and failing to provide doctors and nurses with adequate protective equipment? It isn’t hard to guess which of the two the government will be focusing on for the foreseeable future.

But that still leaves Johnson facing an unenviable political choice: miss the deadline on which he had staked his domestic credibility and admit that we are in this for a longer haul than he has hitherto been prepared to say, or stick to it and risk compounding one economic shock with another when the UK abruptly leaves the European single market and customs union as 2020 turns into 2021. The path gravity will force him to take seems obvious, at least – but it’s clear the government isn’t ready to confront that truth yet.