The economist, John Maynard Keynes, famously said, “ When the facts change, I change. What do you do, sir?” If he were alive today, he would be addressing that question to Messrs. Johnson, Gove and Raab.
This is what the Welsh Government has rightly done in asking the UK Government to hit the pause button on Brexit while the country tackles the far more urgent coronavirus crisis.
Please note that the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has not asked Mr Johnson to abandon Brexit. He has asked only that the Prime Minister should “urgently pause the UK-EU negotiations and seek an extension to the transition period” so that the fight against coronavirus can have “our full attention and focus for as long as necessary.”
In a rather Mad Hatter response, the Conservative Assembly Member, Andrew R. T. Davies, sought to stand Mr Drakeford’s argument on its head, arguing that writing letters about Brexit was a diversion from the priority task. It was Mr Davies’s response rather than Mr Drakeford’s letter that was ‘bizarre’.
Where both men agree – along with, I guess, a whole continent – is that Coronavirus is the more urgent matter.
It is not only the four governments in this country that do not have the time or inclination to address the complexities of Brexit while people are dying in droves. The same can be said of the 27 other governments in the EU who will not only have to debate and agree any deal, but also get it through their respective legislatures – and in a few instances even regional governments.
We currently have a situation in which both Britain’s Prime Minister and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, have tested positive for Covid-19. Face to face meetings between the two teams have been suspended and, to the extent that they are happening at all, are taking place via Skype and Zoom – disembodied discussions where a corridor chat to break an impasse is impossible.
Several other European politicians have also tested positive. In Spain, the Prime Minister’s wife has tested positive, as has the Deputy Prime Minister and his wife. The virus has also spread to a number of members of Spain’s Congress of Deputies. In Ireland, the President of Sinn Fein, Mary Lou Macdonald, has been affected and is in self-isolation. The list of affected politicians is certain to get longer in the next few weeks.
Add to these factors current doubts about the recall of Parliament after the Easter break and we face a Brexit process that will be unsatisfactory on so many levels – disrupted relationships between negotiating teams, artificial contact and scarce and distracted scrutiny. These are not the circumstances in which our post-pandemic future should be decided.
Neither are these concerns limited to this country. Worries are also being expressed on the other side of the English Channel. In an article posted this week, Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive of the highly regarded European Policy Centre, argues that extending the transition period has become a necessity.
“To willingly and deliberately cause another economic shock in such a crisis moment would be reckless. The situation will be even worse if there is no deal, especially if this already happens by mid-June.
“At that point, the economy will be extremely fragile and another shock could not only further fuel the downward spiral but also trigger a full-blown financial crisis. An extension to the transition is thus not only in the EU27’s interest but is also a contribution to the overall stabilisation of the global economy.
“Given the asymmetric nature of the negative impact of Brexit, delaying it will, of course, also be of disproportionate benefit to the UK itself,” he adds.
M. Zuleeg is not blind to the difficulties posed by extending the transition period beyond 2020. The EU’s new budgetary period is due to start on 1st January 2021, although no agreement has been reached yet between the 27 members on what is known as the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
Since agreement currently looks unlikely, and since governments are pre-occupied with the pandemic, one simple solution would be for the EU to extend the current budgetary period, in which the UK is already a participant, by one year until the end of 2021.
This would require an amendment to the current Withdrawal Agreement Act – before the 30th June – an artificial deadline that our own government sought for itself to underline the unshakability of its Brexit convictions.
At present Ministers are forbidden from agreeing to an extension. Fresh legislation would be required. But if the Commons and Lords can pass massive and unprecedented emergency legislation on Coronavirus in the space of a single day, they can surely make any necessary amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Act in the blink of an eye.
Were the UK Government to persist in refusing to contemplate any extension, M Zuleeg concludes that “this would clearly demonstrate that the UK’s overarching priority is Brexit ‘at any price’, whatever the economic and societal consequences.”
It is possible that, on the Brexit issue, the ideological mindset of the UK government is so rigid that it will see the economic consequences of the pandemic as a handy front behind which the economic consequences of Brexit can be conveniently hidden.
But this would be to show a cavalier disregard for its own people, especially the most vulnerable families and the most vulnerable regions. A few percentage points here and there are not just points on a graph, they are, in the end, measured in the hardships of families and the inadequacies of our public services.
The truth is that we are facing a massive two-headed crisis – medical and economic. The international search for a vaccine to solve the medical crisis must go hand in hand with an international search for a vaccine for the economic crisis.
At present, the international scientific effort to solve the medical crisis seems vastly greater than international endeavours on the economic front.
In America, the least thoughtful President in living memory is adopting an approach to the pandemic that is framed by a brazen concern for re-election in the autumn. In Europe, divisions between northern and southern members of the European Union, are putting the Eurozone and maybe the whole European edifice at risk. Russia and China, as ever, pursue their realpolitik.
Meanwhile, the pandemic threatens even more mayhem in the Middle East, Africa and South America. This is not a world in which a British Government should embarrass us all by pretending to act out a remake of Dunkirk.