Barnier is likely to agree a UK extension (image: ALDE Group (CC BY-ND 2.0))

Julie Ward says Labour must demand the government pushes pause on Brexit

Many will be forgiven for thinking that Brexit has indeed been concluded and may even be wondering what all the Remainer tears were about. Apart from a few ugly displays of English nationalism on the streets around Westminster on January 31st the moment of separation passed largely without incident and the world as we know it did not end! Indeed, the transition from fully-fledged EU Member State to a ‘third country’ did not result in major changes to daily life for the majority of people living and working in the UK. So what’s to worry about?

Since Cameron’s ill-advised referendum in June 2016 the media had reported on little else other than Brexit, so much so that the ongoing war in Syria and other conflicts and disasters barely received a mention. With all the focus on the ongoing drama in the UK Parliament no one noticed reports coming out of China at the beginning of January regarding a new form of deadly coronavirus likely to be on a par with SARS, MERS and Ebola.

For three and a half years we had lived and breathed Brexit 24/7 and many were truly fed up and weary of the seemingly endless deadlock. It was only when Boris Johnson appeared to have solved the Brexit dilemma that he began to address other issues including what was already becoming a global health crisis. However, little government progress was made in respect of either post-Brexit deals or a Covid-19 response during February, by which time the unseen but not unexpected foreign enemy had already infected millions.

Speaking at the Another Europe Is Possible online national conference on April 4th, Paul Mason referenced a florid speech made by Johnson at Greenwich on February 3rd where the PM prioritised his post-Brexit vision of a buccaneering global free-trading Britain over medical necessity:

“[W]hen there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange”.

Barely two months later Johnson would be in intensive care, struck down by the virus and on the receiving end of NHS care delivered by those pesky migrant nurses in a country belatedly in lockdown. Meanwhile the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, had also tested positive and self-isolated, meaning that trade talks between the UK and EU had effectively stalled. As the pandemic swept the world, overwhelming health systems, the UK had dithered, trying to present a ‘business as usual’ front. Initial negotiating texts were published by the UK and EU in late February with the UK demanding divergence on a number of issues, contrary to the Withdrawal Agreement made in good faith, leading Barnier to question the UK’s commitment to reaching a deal at all.

As deaths continue to rise, and with 25,000 civil servants allocated to dealing with the pandemic, most voters now appear to want to extend the transition period regardless of Leave/Remain affiliations. The double whammy of recurring waves of Covid-19 on top of a No-Deal Brexit is a terrifying prospect for businesses and communities. Yet the government continue to insist they are sticking to their timeline, even threatening to walk away in June. However, some Tories are growing nervous, with former MP Nick de Bois (who served as Dominic Raab’s chief of staff in DExEU) writing in the Sunday Times on April 5th: “It would be incomprehensible to many members of the public if Johnson’s government devoted time and energy on these talks until the pandemic was under control.”

Mason predicts that “a hard Brexit on December 31st could turn a sharp, six-month recession into a two-to-three-year slump”, and lays down the gauntlet to Keir Starmer to call for a one-year extension and repudiate the government’s existing negotiating text. For my part, I am working closely with Labour for a Socialist Europe, gathering signatures for an open letter encouraging Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and the NEC to support the call for a major extension. Unprecedented times call for boldness and we must therefore put Brexit on the back burner.

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