On 1 January 2021, the United Kingdom will have left the European Union. Or, if there is an extension to the transition agreement, we will still be members. It is a testament to the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic that this has again become a contentious point, but one largely off the front pages, despite the progress (or lack thereof) in exit talks.
Practically, the UK and EU need to decide by 1 July on either no extension or one for any period between one to two years. If there is an extension, the UK will remain under transition agreement rules, broadly rule-taking while being technically outside the EU. If there isn’t an extension, the relationship will be governed by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, and likely but not assuredly a number of hastily put together bilateral agreements.
The advantage of an extension is more time to reach an agreement. The disadvantage is being locked into EU rules and financial commitments without having any say in their formation.
Both sides in this debate appear to believe that the pandemic supports their position. Extenders believe Brexit will add to the already extreme economic costs of dealing with post-viral recovery. They say it will add further damage to businesses already on their knees, particularly those with EU supply chains.
However, enders believe that it would lock Britain into paying for the EU’s own recovery programme, particularly in southern Europe, thereby delaying our own recovery. They argue that business has shown this quarter just how fast and flexibly they can adapt to major supply chain issues, and we need sovereignty to help them – and this can only be done by removing pointless EU rules.
Each believes that the political oxygen being taken up by disease control supports their case. Extenders worry any deal or no-deal scenario will not have been sufficiently scrutinised by parliament and civil society. In the administration’s confidence, they see bluff, overconfidence and incautious failure to attend to boring but important details.
Enders see no evidence suggesting that endless public rows added much value to talks in the May era. Quite the opposite, in fact. They worry any extension would take us back to a position of weakness and paralysis. They firmly believe the UK and EU have the capacity to make a deal, regardless of the pandemic.
Each mistrusts the motive of the other. Extenders believe that enders have wanted a no-deal Brexit all along. Enders that extenders see this, like the withdrawal agreement and second referendum campaign, as ways of reversing the decision to leave undemocratically.
Everyone has a point and no one is going to persuade anyone else of their case. The public largely wants a decision, not a debate. The issue ranks somewhere south of “where can I buy eggs?” in their thinking at the current time.
One way to understand this dialogue of mutual incomprehension is through the famous 1995 Andrea Bocelli song Con Te Partirò, a Sanremo Music Festival entry. Sanremo is like the Eurovision song contest, but where everyone is Italian and can sing. It was subsequently commissioned to open a boxing match in Germany, the last IBF title fight of Henry Maske. It was re-released as the duet Time to Say Goodbye, in English, with Sarah Brightman.
The song, which you will know and is utterly magnificent in all forms, accurately describes the ending of the UK’s relationship with the European Union. However, it only makes sense if you hear it in your own language. The second version was supposed to be in German, but German ideas often sound better in English, like the EU. To be clear, though, the English title is not a translation of the Italian. In Italian, it means “I’ll leave with you” – it’s the May Brexit. While regretting the things we missed before, we’ll now explore the world together as partners, take flights together to explore new trade deals and the like, our rules fully aligned, chinking our glasses at Davos, even if not still actually a couple.
In English – that is, the Johnson version – it’s the end of a relationship that has gone awry, even if there are aspects of each other we’ll remember fondly. That aside, we’re still getting on that plane. If the luggage isn’t packed, it will be by then, and hiding the passport down the back of the sofa isn’t going to stop us.
The EU doesn’t believe that the UK really wants to exit other than in name only. Indeed, it is banking on the UK leaving via the mechanism of a very generous and ongoing financial settlement while largely doing nothing to challenge the rules-based order of the acquis which the UK played a large part in establishing. After all, we built this house together. Isn’t the garden worth staying for, or at the very least visiting?
The UK does not understand why loudly singing “goodbye” at the EU for four years requires any further translation. It’s off to meet new people, find itself, experiment, dabble in a little casual rules-based order of its own. It has even hired a decent divorce lawyer in David Frost, after the last one seemed to think the client wanted couples therapy, not a decree nisi.
So we are where we are, in lockdown together, singing the same different song at each other. But, one is clearly hoping the other will remember that glorious summer in Italy together when Andrea won with his beautiful music, and that follow-up in Germany, the lights, the sport, the old boxer’s pugilistic victory.
Except that Andrea came fourth and Henry lost to an American. And at both events, the UK was in the bar getting pissed.
Sometimes you need to know when it’s time to say goodbye.