Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

On the 31st of January 2020 some friends and I sat counting down the minutes until the UK officially left the EU. After more than three years of pantomime back and forth, and a year’s news dominated by a single word- Brexit- the deed was (to use the political slogan) “done”. The hard work of getting a deal in 11 months could now begin, and we looked grimly ahead to another year of Brexit.

That it comes as something of a relief to see Brexit in the news again attests to what a year this has been so far. So, what has COVID-19 meant for Brexit?

As is usually the case with Brexit, the answer tends to be that it depends who you ask. Brexiteers are confident that they can use COVID-19 to force the EU into concessions. They stick to the mantra that, because the UK imports more from the EU than it exports (the trade deficit they often refer to), any reversion to the often misunderstood ‘WTO terms’ would hurt the EU more than the UK. The Prime Minister seems optimistic enough to declare that the outline of a deal will be ‘done by July’. Simple enough.

Yet, for most Remainers, liberal elites and responsible adults or paranoid fearmongers (depending on your view) COVID-19 has had quite the opposite impact. Amid reports that suggest COVID-19 offers the perfect chance to ‘smuggle’ no deal through, the specter of no-deal now looms ever larger than before and seems increasingly likely because of the pandemic. For this side of the debate, leaving the EU on WTO terms would be economic suicide at a time when according to the OECD the UK is likely to be  worst hit among major economies. For many, the best outcome is a free trade agreement – and if this is not possible, then an extension of the transition period. Shame then that an extension beyond 2020 has just been ruled out. According to Martin Wolf, only “lunatics or fanatics” would consider a no-deal outcome. Good thing this is a government famed for its cool poise, its calmness under fire and its willingness to compromise…

Negotiations require flexibility. Almost all are agreed that a no-deal would be damaging for both parties. On the one hand the EU has shown willingness to adapt; just last Tuesday (the 16th)  it stated its willingness to “row back” on the contentious, albeit small, area of fishing.  On the other hand, the UK is caught between having promised three things – ‘frictionless’ trade, no free movement and no hard border – but it can only have two. Trade may well be the sacrificial lamb, with any deal probably painted as ‘frictionless’- buteven here compromise is needed. It’s not clear that the current UK government has the technical know-how to make those compromises, particularly as they attempt to negotiate free trade deals with other countries, such as the US, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, which are all prime targets for new deals

Either the EU caves, we tumble into the no-deal abyss or Boris Johnson finds the will and ability to compromise. The first seems unlikely at present – President Macron has been very consistent in his outspokenness that the UK cannot be seen to profit from Brexit. Moreover, expecting the EU to give the UK everything it wants would jeopardize the EU project; it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. The second would go beyond recklessness and surely constitute an unprecedented act of self-harm.  Yet the third looks far from achievable given the government’s ideological stance and inexperience in negotiations. In an unprecedented year, Boris Johnson simply must break more new ground, by finding the conviction and ability to compromise to get a deal, and thus avoid pilling the avoidable economic misery of no-deal on the unavoidable economic misery of the virus. 

Only one thing is certain – COVID-19 has made the Brexit stakes even higher.