July 14, 2020 by Firinne Rolfe
For four years, Brexit dominated the media. There was a swirl of news stories, changing Prime Ministers, attempted deals, and unanswered questions. Then COVID-19 hit, and Britain’s departure from the EU was no longer at the forefront of everyone's minds.
Like many other sectors of society, after the initial shock of the pandemic, politics about non-COVID issues had to adapt to a new normal. Brexit negotiations first felt the hit of COVID with negotiators from both sides contracting the virus. As they returned to good health and switched to video talks, negotiations were once again underway. Many businesses, and even the IMF, voiced their support of an extension because of the hit the economy already suffered from global lockdowns. However, the British government did not hold the same position and continued to push to “get Brexit done.” In June, the government formally announced that they would not seek an extension. It would be highly beneficial for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to meet his promises in the deal as he is already under heavy criticism for his handling of COVID-19. However, many political scientists predict that the EU will not allow this to happen because it will show how easy and profitable leaving the EU could be, as well as leave them with trade and political deals that are less beneficial for the bloc. Both sides agree that they need to ramp up the negotiations this summer in order to meet the December deadline, since so far not much progress has been made. With fears of a second wave of COVID infections, some UK citizens are also now more fearful of what leaving the EU will look like. The pandemic has exposed that decision making without careful consultation of other countries can be very dangerous.
There are many issues that both sides view as important that are prolonging the discussions, while underlying political goals also play a role. The UK is wary of a deal that leaves them still closely tied to the EU, and the EU needs a deal that makes a statement, one that shows leaving the bloc will not be beneficial, in order to dissuade other member states from following suit. The negotiations thus far have been riddled with frustration, with both sides losing patience with the lack of progress. There is disagreement about how their post-Brexit relationship should be governed, with the EU asking for a treaty that covers everything, and the UK looking for a simple trade deal. Many aspects of the economy are also being debated; for example, rules around fishing have been difficult to develop. Another point of contention is the authority of the European Court of Justice in relation to Britain's courts and Parliament. In addition, issues around the Irish border have also not been fully resolved. Evidently, disagreement over policies and priorities continue to plague Britain’s departure process.
So, where are we now? Unfortunately, not that far from where we started. It’s been four years since the original referendum, and with 175 days left until the end of the transition period, there doesn’t seem to be an easy end in sight. As much as Prime Minister Johson is adamant that he will “Get Brexit Done,” it may not be the Brexit that many citizens hoped for. However, with the economy already in shambles, some predict a no-deal Brexit would not make the same difference it would have before, and perhaps more freedom from Europe could be valuable as the government rebuilds the economy. This prediction, like most other proposed solutions, is highly debated. A ‘successful’ Brexit depends very much on perspective. With the way things are going, the only way to emerge from Brexit successfully is for both sides to let go of some sticking points they brought to the negotiations.
Firinne Rolfe ('21) is a Senior Editor at SPR and a co-Head of Politics Club for the upcoming year.