Brexit update: Will Johnson be forced to agree to a delay?

Brexit | | MIC Customs Solutions |

Calls are mounting for British prime minister Boris Johnson to agree to an extension of the Brexit transition period.

Last December, now-British prime minister Boris Johnson sailed to a landslide election victory in the UK after vowing to be the politician that would finally get Brexit done.

Weary after more than three years of stalemate, the British public held him at his word and duly saw the nation officially leave the European Union on January 31st 2020. All that remained was to formally negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU within the (admittedly tight) 11-month transition period.

Now, though, even the ever-adamant Mr Johnson may be forced to concede defeat and do what to him must seem like the unthinkable: delay Brexit past December 31st.

And the cause? Not political wrangling or disagreement but, of course, the global spread and threat of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

As the death toll across Europe and the UK mounts and the British Treasury is overwhelmed by the implementation of a hasty round of rescue packages, the government is coming under increasing pressure to extend the deadline.

With calls coming from even those who were once die-hard Brexiteers, the consensus is that it cannot be long before Mr Johnson relents.

Europe is currently the epicentre of the virus, and the peak of the crisis in the UK is - going by the experiences of countries like Italy and Spain - likely to overlap with what would have been deadlines for trade negotiations.

Last night (March 23rd 2020), Mr Johnson was forced to implement a near-total lockdown of Britain for a minimum of three weeks in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, with social distancing heralded as the one measure that could make a significant difference.

Although the government has so far insisted talks could carry on using teleconferencing rather than the face-to-face discussions that had been planned for this week, doubt is creeping in over whether or not this could be as effective - and if it could result in people still sharing rooms and screens.

When asked by the Guardian if there will be an extension on Brexit, a spokesperson for Mr Johnson insisted: "No. In UK law, a request for an extension is not possible. Both the UK and the EU are fully aware of the timetable which we're working towards."

Indeed, the current deadline for an extension past 2020 is July 1st. However, in such extraordinary circumstances, it will surely be pointed out that perhaps emergency extensions could be applied for that would prevent the UK falling foul of the law.

It certainly seems that the British public feels these are extenuating circumstances. Despite more than half voting in favour of Brexit in the referendum, a YouGov poll last week found 55 per cent of Britons would be in favour of extending the deadline, with only 24 per cent opposed.

After all, even EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has already been sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19, with the threat that many more ministers could be affected.

The Scottish government has added to the calls for an extension, with Roseanna Cunningham calling Brexit "an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction" from battling coronavirus.

Fabian Zuleeg from the European Policy Centre is another expert in support, suggesting that causing another economic shock would be "reckless", while professor of law and government at Durham University Thom Brooks pointed out in the Independent that "politics is about priorities; forging new trade deals is not top of the list for any country at the present time".

Another good point raised is that keeping close contact with the Europe Medicines Agency could be the best way to ensure Britain has rapid access to a potential cure for the coronavirus - rather than joining a lengthy queue with other non-EU nations - should a vaccine be developed outside the UK.

Meanwhile, in a somewhat ironic twist, many UK manufacturers are using the contingency plans they drew up to cope with Brexit as they now find themselves fighting to cope with the disruption caused by COVID-19.

"In a way, Brexit means we are prepared for this," one told the Financial Times.

Mere months ago, who could have predicted that a political situation causing such a headache would prove to be a port in a storm?