Should pro-EU groups focus now on a campaign to extend the Brexit transition period?

Colin Gordon (Press Officer, Oxford for Europe)
5 May 2020

Question Of The Hour

Major pro-EU groups are coming together to campaign for the UK to agree with the EU, in the transformed global setting of the COVID-19 pandemic, to postpone by two years the hard end-date of the UK’s transition period. Colin Gordon (Oxford for Europe)* sets the scene.

The case for extending the Brexit transition period is now widely supported in government and business, both in the UK and in the EU. The shortness of negotiating time left before the 31 December transition endpoint greatly increases the risk of a no-deal exit, a result actively sought by Brexiter forces in UK government. Our top priority must be to avoid being manipulated into this worst-case outcome: an extension to the transition allows the necessary time to negotiate, instead, the least worst set of future trade arrangements for a UK which has left the EU.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, extension of the transition period needs to be agreed with the EU by the end of June. So far, the UK government has remained stubbornly opposed to such action. But COVID-19 may well be a game-changer. A recent Focaldata poll commissioned by Best for Britain and Hope Not Hate shows a massive public majority now in favour of a transition extension. The poll of more than 2,000 people found that 66% of the public believe the UK government ‘should focus 100% of its energy on dealing with the coronavirus (pandemic) for the rest of the year’. Nearly half of Conservative and Leave voters support an extension. So pro-Europeans arguing for transition extension have a strong support base outside their own camp. However, we need to move fast, and be ready to regroup quickly in June.

Extension of the transition is a tactical and procedural objective that can unite people who may well differ about their desired final goal, but agree on what they want to avoid. Such alliances may be uncomfortable, but sometimes they are necessary. Meanwhile, those campaigning for an extension of the transition from a pro-EU standpoint can be open about their views and are fully entitled also to:

  •  campaign in favour of short and long-term outcomes following Brexit that provide the closest possible UK relationship to the EU;
  • promote close UK-EU links and friendship in all areas;
  • safeguard the wellbeing and rights of UkinEU and EUinUK citizens;
  • hold government robustly to account for its Brexiter policies and their consequences.

Different players may choose to focus effort on different messages, targeting different audiences. This may be a good way to distribute our efforts. But we must consider some objections to this plan.

What’s not to like? Three objections.

  1. Too little time, too many obstacles. The government has legislated to prevent a transition extension, and is running down the clock to block the chance of either an extension or an agreed deal. We now have only a few weeks left to mount an effective public campaign for extension. Some may say the case is now hopeless. Best of Britain, mindful of these concerns, published a report backed by its opinion poll last week, setting out a clear diplomatic and legislative pathway to an acceptable extension agreement under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement by June 30th. It also points out a previously unnoticed alternative route which would still remain open after June 30th – an agreement by the UK and EU states to amend the Withdrawal Agreement itself. There is a linked petition.
  2. Worries about legitimacy. Some (ex-)Remainers fear that a move to extend the transition will be labelled as yet another undemocratic Remainer plot to sabotage or impede Brexit, acting now in defiance of a new and clear parliamentary majority. The accusation will certainly be made, but if transition extension is also supported by Conservative Leavers and non-political business lobbies, it will be unlikely to stick.
  3. The great Brexit learning experience. Some ardent Rejoiners believe that public will only learn the reality of what Brexit means when Brexit happens; the sooner they learn this, and the harder the Brexit, the better the chances of winning public backing to undo Brexit and re-join the EU. But sitting back and letting Brexiters drive us over the cliff may not have the salutary educational effect on the public we hope – it could instead trigger a downward spiral into right-wing authoritarian populism.

The Brexit debate updated: COVID-19 changes everything.

The COVID-19 crisis changes just about everything. Our reality, our experience and our perspectives are being modified daily. We need to look in particular at how the landscape of debate about Brexit has been transformed by COVID-19.

COVID-19 gives us two powerful arguments for a Brexit transition extension. One of these is, as the new poll shows, supported by significant Conservative and pro-Leave opinion. This is the ‘one crisis at a time’ argument. The pandemic will test to the limit the capabilities of our state and the resilience of our economy and society. During 2020, at least, we will not have the capacity to tolerate the additional disruptive impact of an ill-prepared and chaotic Brexit.

The other, complementary argument which may well come increasingly to weigh with broad sectors of public opinion is the unflattering new light which the COVID-19 experience throws on the Brexit project and the pro-Brexit faction which dominates the current government.

Perversely, the UK, a state which has left EU in order to repatriate powers it never lost, unilaterally chose to leave its borders wide open and its population unprotected from lethal infection. Serious questions have been raised about the government’s apparent doctrinaire refusal to participate in EU programmes to procure ventilators, tests and Personal Protective Equipment.  A decade of malignant ideological austerity has left our public health systems downsized and dysfunctional. Urgent warnings of our lack of pandemic readiness have been suppressed and ignored by Brexiter governments since 2016. Science policy advice on national biosecurity is manipulated by spin-doctors. The pandemic death-toll, much of it avoidable, now outnumbers deaths in the WW2 Blitz.

The emerging evidence of the Government’s negligent, if not homicidal handling of COVID-19 may well encourage the public to ask equally sober, sceptical questions about the Brexit project aggressively promoted by the same politicians. Does the Government’s handling of the pandemic give us a foretaste of the ‘new normal’ after a no-deal Brexit? Amid mass death and economic decimation, is public opinion content to let Brexiters double down on no-deal? We shall see.

Thanks to Nick Hopkinson, Andy Pye, Juliet Mayer and Gareth Steel for editing, suggestions and comments. Opinions are the author’s.