Blog Post by Caroline Voaden, former Liberal Democrat MEP

London Calling is the new column of the European Liberal Forum aimed at bridging the Channel

As Europe tries to work out how it will manage the staggering implications of the Coronavirus epidemic, it is only natural that attention has drifted away from Brexit – impossible though that would have sounded just a few months ago.

But the Brexit clock is ticking loudly and we now have only one month, and one more round of negotiations to go, before the two sides have to agree a deal, decide to extend the transition period or agree that there will be no trade deal and the UK will proceed on WTO rules.

While that might thrill the supporters of the Brexit Party and Boris Johnson’s more gung-ho cabinet colleagues, it will send a shudder down the spine of anyone desperately trying to keep their business afloat during lockdown – not only here in the UK but in the EU27 as well. A hard Brexit hitting just as our economies begin to emerge from the COVID-19 trauma will be like kicking an injured man when he is already down.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be much softening of the negotiating stance on either side, and time is running out. Senior Europeans say that while the case for an extension is overwhelming, there appears to be little appetite for it on the UK side. It appears our Government can’t quite let go of the “Get Brexit Done” mantra and might be tempted to use COVID-19 to camouflage the disaster of a crash out from the single market and customs union at the end of the year.

Despite the government’s intransigence, the mood in the UK is changing – people know that we have left the EU and realism is creeping in. In a recent poll 64% of respondents said they thought an extension was needed, given that negotiations have been hampered by the pandemic and governments both here and across the EU are overwhelmed. Even 49% of those who voted to leave the EU would now support an extension.

With only one round of talks left, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier hit out at the UK’s tone in a letter last week and called for ‘new dynamism to avoid a stalemate’ in the final round. Brussels feels that the UK still wants an agreement with all the benefits, but with minimal obligations. Some would say it is as if the UK side has still not fully understood what Brexit means.

But a new approach looks unlikely. EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan told RTE he thought the UK would walk away from the talks. “I think that the United Kingdom politicians and government have certainly decided that COVID is going to be blamed for all the fallout from Brexit and my perception of it is they don’t want to drag the negotiations out into 2021 because they can effectively blame COVID for everything.”

Despite having agreed a political declaration last autumn that included commitments to a ‘level playing field’, in order to avoid distorting trade and unfair competitive advantages, the UK still objects to provisions demanded by the EU in exchange for market access.

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, has accused the EU in a letter to Barnier, which prompted the above response, of pushing “novel and unbalanced proposals which would bind this country to EU law or standards”. Yet as Barnier points out, those standards would be a minimum and the UK would be free to amend its own rules and regulations. The implication of course is that the UK would like to have the freedom to lower environmental standards and workers’ rights.

Hitting back at Frost, Mr Barnier said the “geographic proximity and economic interdependence” of Britain and the EU required robust safeguards of this level playing field. And he was clear the UK could not just pick out the best bits of previous EU agreements with Canada, Japan and other countries to suit. Frost says proximity is “not an argument that can hope to be accepted in the 21st century”.

So it appears the risk of a No Deal Brexit on December 31st is as real as ever, something which last year invoked fear in anyone involved in cross-border trade, relations or collaboration – think scientists, academics, orchestras here as much as importers and exporters. And yet the UK and EU27 are so consumed by dealing with Coronavirus that none can begin to prepare adequately.

Things will be bad enough by December. To add the economic shock of a No Deal Brexit to this would be madness – not just for the UK but for the EU27 as well. But time is fast running out to prevent it.

Caroline Voaden is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat European Party and served as MEP for SW England & Gibraltar. She is now Special Advisor on European Relations to Edward Davey, the Lib Dems acting leader.

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