Die-cast Britain

So we’re back on the edge of another non-decision-decision moment for the Brexit process, as 30 June rolls around.

The absence of an extension the transition period means that at the end of this calendar year the UK will enter a new stage of its relationship with the EU.

We just don’t know what that will be right now.

As someone working in Higher Education, I’m starting to spot a pattern to my life, namely the multiple requests to prepare, but without knowing for quite what.

Just as universities are having to lay plans to cope with a wide range of uncertainty about student numbers, social distancing and other prophylactic measures, so the UK as a whole is being asked to get ready for 1 January 2021 with even less guidance about what that might involve.

When I considered the situation in late March, the situation seemed rather different. The new lockdown surely pointed to a shift in Brexit policy, so the delay logically came down to some positional factors.

Re-reading that piece, I still think that the various factors were correctly identified, but wrongly weighted. As the Covid response become unstuck and the brickbats flew in, the Brexit timeline became the one fixed point to which the government could hang on to, rather than a tool to be used.

That makes some sense in the chaos of everything that has followed, but it does not resolve the fundamental problem of an absence of activity.

In the week and a half since the principals’ meeting of Johnson, von der Leyen and Michel, there has been little sign of the acceleration that all sides spoke of, most notably on the UK side, which needs to produce more detail on its intentions in the Future Relationship talks and plans for the Irish Protocol implementation.

There is even less sign of the mobilisation of staff recruitment, regulatory advice or other planning to prepare for the two possible outcomes to the process: a pretty minimal FTA or a no-deal. Both require very large investments of resources, over many months, but it’s just not happening yet.

Part of that might be explained by the stated intention of the UK government to not impose full-blown border controls on day 1 of the new regime, with the concomitant hope that the EU will do the same, but that cannot be the whole of it.

And even if it were the whole of it, it’s not a resilient strategy to pursue.

Moreover, it raises the question of what the UK can actually, practically do if it doesn’t little or nothing now?

Some of the answer will lie in the agreement that is being working upon: as in previous moments, the government seems more willing to concede ground to the EU than its rhetoric might suggest. The recently floating idea that the UK voluntarily follows EU rules on the Level Playing Field, but accepts penalties if it diverges, is one might have more general application, even if it does come with rather more uncertainty than the Commission would like.

But even this leaves a significant gap that will have to be bridged somehow. And that bridging is likely to have to occur during the immediate aftermath of the end of transition, when the realities of the situation hit home.

Even if neither side tries to make that period difficult, it is clear that the disruptions to supply lines and economic activity will make for a significantly tenser environment in which to try to address multiple, interlinked problems.

Rather than fixate on “how we could have avoided this by having an extension”, perhaps we might start now on getting properly ready for when this comes around, while we still have some time.