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Is there a case for not extending transition?

As much as people talk about Brexit at all right now, much of what you hear is the cry that an extension of the Withdrawal Agreement’s transition period must happen.

I’ve not seen a single industry representative, negotiation expert or academic say anything different for the past month, and I’m not about to go against that.

What I am going to is consider the counter-position, for the simple fact that despite the extremely obvious pressure/necessity of an extension, it hasn’t happened.

If we can understand the counter-arguments, then we might not merely get a sense of how relevant parties understand the situation, but also a key to what might need to change to see an extension actually occur.

The first observation is that for a position that is apparently so counter-intuitive, there are plenty of arguments that could be made. Again, I am not advocating any of them, nor am I saying that these are the ones being pushed in reality: I’m just trying to play devil’s advocate.

The starting point has to be one of ephemerality and significance. Yes, coronavirus is A Big Thing, but maybe it’s not big enough to disrupt plans. If you think that the peak for infections is only a month away and there’s a rapid rebound, then you might feel that you can stick to the timetable of an agreement by year’s end.

More specifically, that requires that you see a bit of slack in the original schedule: maybe the summer wasn’t slated for as much work, maybe signing processes can be sped up, maybe you’ve looked at the two drafts and you don’t see big gaps [in which case, you’re not looking very hard].

It’s important to remember that Number 10 holds Brexit to be central to its project, and it has lost most of the barriers that the previous government faced: The Tory backbench is purged of the loudest critics; Parliament is supine; Labour is (still) caught up in leadership selection (the LibDems too, for that matter). That places the onus very much on Johnson’s shoulders and it’s a very simple test of whether he keeps his word.

But you can already see the issues with this. The negotiations to date have confirmed what we all thought: big gaps on several fundamental points and no obvious solutions. And on the coronavirus side, any quarter-prudent politician would see major effects on the UK and EU for an extended period, especially if there is a second wave of infections during the year.

Indeed, on that last point, you’d have to assume that even if it doesn’t actually happen, you still have to plan/prepare for it to happen, as the political consequences of being caught with your metaphorical pants down a second time could be atrocious. It’s hard to show that people will die because of Brexit, but all too easy to show that they are killed by a lack of sufficient medical provision for coronavirus.

So we have to continue to look for other logics that might explain the lack of an extension.

The next simplest reasoning would be one of timing. As various journalists have argued, the decision to extend might already have been taken in principle, but Number 10 is just waiting for the right time.

Given how the past week has unfolded, that time might be soon. The unprecedented delay of the Olympic Games to next year only limped in 20 minutes after the top of the 10 O’Clock News the other day, while non-coronavirus news barely appears at all.

The government has already shown it is willing to bin many of its notional ideological moorings to put in place massive state support for individuals and businesses, and it would be easy to sell an extension as a further support; removing a major point of disruption for the economy when it’s still getting back on its feet.

Maybe you have to keep the decision back for a while yet, to show how difficult a decision it was, and to minimise the backlash for the Non-Extension hardcore, but right now none of this feels like a particularly hard job to do. But it would still be another example of how Number 10 gives way.

But maybe you still feel that the timetable matters, and that coronavirus matters. In that case, you might be thinking of a folding strategy. This relies on an assumption that more people care about timing than content – again, not the most unreasonable of assumptions, based on what we’ve seen since 31 January.

Here, the UK could give way on key points of the negotiation, to get it over the line, ideally with some symbolic win to wave about, so that come 31 December transition can end, Johnson can go on about how no-one thought it was possible, strong head-winds, etc, during a press conference and Brexit can be ‘done’ once again.

Yes, some uncomfortable scrutiny will come, down the line, plus some difficult conversations with supporters who wanted to make a sharper break, but again nothing that couldn’t be lived with, especially as public attention would move on yet further than it already has.

The problem with this is that even a deal on EU terms would still mean major changes in practice. Lots of infrastructure and resourcing would have to go into border controls and documentation processes, and would have to start going in now. Even before coronavirus kicked off, it was evident that the government has not been sufficiently active in putting such things in place, and now there isn’t the option so to do. All of which stores up a big problem for 1 January.

Which takes me to a more Machiavellian option: the distraction.

Let’s say you accept the analysis of every independent analyst out there, who says both a no-deal outcome and a basic FTA outcome (the government’s preferred option) will come with big costs to the UK economy. Why not muddy the waters about that effect by sticking to your timeline for negotiations and then hoping that in the massive turmoil caused by coronavirus (with its potential for a big rebound, remember) the marginal hassle of Brexit gets lost in it all?

Indeed, you might go further and argue that precisely because of the disruption, no one is in a position to be spending time and effort on building border checks in any hurry, so it might actually smooth things out: everyone has to let such things slide for now and you can grab another block of time to sort it out. And if ‘they’ get snotty, then you can play the moral high ground card about being more focused on helping people at this difficult time.

Quite aside from the highly distasteful morality of this, this option also runs up against both practical and reputational barriers. Practically, the EU27 have gone a lot further in prepping for the outcome of this process, so they can staff a lot more of their control processes. Reputationally, if any hint that this was the plan leaks then it runs a dagger right through any future UK-EU interactions by this government, plus it becomes a huge stick to be beaten with by opposition parties domestically.

So where does this all leave us?

Again, as much as extension looks like the right thing to do, with far smaller costs attached to it than even a month ago, it has not happened. Since I struggle to believe that the distraction option could be a flyer in any half-serious conversation, I’d guess that we’re somewhere between the timing option (which would be the most judicious) and the folding option (which reflects on the level of apparent detailed understanding displayed by some of the more fervent supporters of non-extension).

Whether any of these ideas actually plays out will become clearer in the next month, especially if infections peak, and the question of ephemerality comes back into play.

Until then, stay safe and stay home.


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