Comment: Britain should use pandemic to extend transition

Boris Johnson should seek an extension and focus on the Covid-19 crisis

29th April, 2020
Comment: Britain should use pandemic to extend transition
Boris Johnson, Britain‘s prime minister: his continued posturing on Brexit at a time when he should be focusing on the coronavirus crisis seems reckless

The tightening of international trade caused by protectionist policies around the world could not have come at a worse time. Compounding these worries in Ireland is the ever-present threat of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020.

The first meeting of the joint committee overseeing the implementation of the withdrawal agreement – including the Northern Ireland protocol – took place in March.

Michael Gove, the British cabinet office minister, has denied that the protocol requires additional checks on the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. In comments to a Westminster committee, he seemed to perceive the joint committee as a vehicle to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.

By contrast, Michel Barnier, the EU‘s chief negotiator, said the “time for negotiation has passed” when it comes to the protocol.

“What is required is to implement the agreement through measures which are pragmatic and effective,” he said.

Generally, borders, quotas and tariffs slow down trade and seriously undermine “just-in-time” supply chains of perishable products. Ireland has benefited significantly from trade liberalisation since the establishment of the World Trade Organisation and the EU’s customs union. Last week’s European Movement survey showed 75 per cent support in Ireland for EU trade policy.

In the international trade committee of the European Parliament, we have been focusing very much on ways in which trade can be environmentally sustainable and coherent with EU values.

For today, however, all of our focus is on making sure supply chains remain supported and open during the Covid-19 crisis.

Some non-EU countries are considering restrictions on exports. There is no logic to this approach in circumstances where there is no scarcity of food. Reports from around the globe suggest that crops are extremely healthy and a bumper harvest is forecast.

Paradoxically, Ireland has been preparing for severe interruptions to our food supply for some time, albeit for completely different reasons. The continuing threat of a no-deal Brexit on December 31, 2020 has meant that suppliers and distributors have sought ways to build up inventory and additional warehouse space.

Modern supply chains reduce costs by avoiding delays and keeping storage times to a bare minimum. Where there is no need for storage, there is limited storage space.

Disgracefully, we now face the threat that Brexit might happen in a disorderly fashion at the peak of the flu season next winter. It hardly bears thinking about. Could any politician in all conscience even allow for the possibility of a crash-out at such a time? For Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, to continue his posturing at this time is reckless at best and an act of outright hostility towards Ireland at worst.

That’s not even to mention the harm he seems to be prepared to visit upon his own population. Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at the University of London, has said that Britain – even without a crash-out Brexit – is “facing a war-time scale of food challenge”.

If that wasn’t enough, Britain’s own Office of Budget Responsibility predicted last month that Brexit would reduce international trade over the next decade by 15 per cent.

When I took up my seat in the European Parliament, I was determined to look at Britain not as a trading competitor but as a trading partner. I argued against punishing Britain for leaving the EU, which was its democratic right. As the weeks have passed, this position is becoming less and less tenable.

The protocol is clear that goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland will be considered to be at risk of onward movement to the EU unless it can be established that they will not be commercially processed in Northern Ireland. In other words, the presumption is that tariffs will be payable. An excellent blog by Stephen Weatherhill, a professor of European law at the University of Oxford, on this point is recommended.

British insouciance on the protocol will undoubtedly infect the negotiations on the future trading relationship, putting everything at risk for an orderly exit in December. The specialist committee on the Northern Ireland protocol, comprising EU and British representatives, met for the first time this week. It was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate good faith and to foster the level of trust required to ensure that a deal can be reached.

A recent Focaldata opinion poll, commissioned by two campaign groups, Best for Britain and Hope not Hate, found 66 per cent of the British public wanted the government to focus on dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. It came amid reports that no one in Whitehall is working on Brexit.

Ultimately the decision to seek an extension is one that Britain must arrive at by itself. Not only is the matter complicated by British politics, but it is also complicated by ongoing negotiations on the EU’s seven-year budget which must be completed by the end of the year.

The coronavirus pandemic offers the British government the chance to wriggle off the hook. It should do just that.

Barry Andrews is a Fianna Fáil MEP

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