United Kingdom

Return of the Remainer undead

When the Covid virus knocked the world for six, Brexit faded into the background. The bad-tempered arguments were forgotten. 

We joined neighbourhood groups, clapped for the NHS, smiled at strangers as we gave them a wide berth, and invented new and ingenious ways of keeping in touch. 

As the Queen movingly put it: 'Our streets are not empty; they are filled with the love and the care that we have for each other.' 

But now the Brexit zombie is back – and the Remainer Undead are stirring up trouble. 

Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator for Europe, attends a press conference regarding the fourth round of Brexit negotiations on June 5, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium

They thought they had struck gold with the campaign against Dominic Cummings, started off by the Remain-supporting Guardian and Mirror newspapers. 

Other media articles simultaneously appeared urging an extension to the present Brexit 'transition period' during which we are half in and half out of the EU. 

Then, last week, a report commissioned by the Remainer organisation Best for Britain was published. 

Not surprisingly, it, too, urged an extension. It rehashed the longdiscredited 'Project Fear' prophecies of economic doom, and added the Covid crisis as an extra worry. 

In a clear attempt to spook Tory MPs, it proclaimed that without a deal with the EU, the economy of 'Red Wall' constituencies in the North and Midlands, won by the Conservatives from Labour last December, would be hardest hit. 

Meanwhile, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, turned up the volume, accusing the UK of backsliding from promises he said it had made in the Political Declaration on the future relationship with the EU, and suggested extending the transition period by 'one or two years'. 

Is all this just a coincidence? I don't believe conspiracy theories on principle – they are nearly always fantasies. 

Yet there is clearly a campaign to put another spanner in the Brexit works as the deadline for an extension to the transition period approaches. 

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reacts during a session at the European parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France

There is no practical reason due to Covid to delay the talks, as the British side and its forceful sherpa David Frost, the UK's chief negotiator, have repeatedly made clear. 

Britain is not asking for a complex 'bespoke' deal, as it did under Theresa May, but for an off-the-peg Free Trade Agreement like those made by the EU with several other countries, such as Canada. 

As Brexiteers have long pointed out, as we already have free trade and full regulatory alignment, continuing on the same lines does not require long negotiation. 

Moreover, an agreement is in the interests of the EU, which has a huge trading surplus (estimated at €94billion) with the UK, which it risks seeing reduced. The problem is not Covid, but politics. 

Brussels demands far more than free trade: the notorious 'level playing field' on standards continued indefinitely, an integrated defence and foreign policy, plus the continuation, in effect, of the Common Fisheries Policy. 

Britain has already said it is not planning on an unfair 'race to the bottom' in its social and environmental policies, and has pointed out that in several areas its standards are higher than on the Continent. 

But EU countries want not just fair trade – which Free Trade Agreements generally provide for anyway – but something very different: the right to oversee and veto Britain's domestic policies, with the European Court of Justice finally deciding the law that applies to us. 

Nothing like this has been seen between democratic states. M. 

Barnier says that Britain's 'geographical proximity' to Europe demands it. 

He also wants British fishing grounds, which are ours under international law, to be treated as common European property. 

We cannot know how much of this is bluff. But on the face of it, these demands amount to treating the UK as a subordinate within the EU's 'sphere of influence' – a concept dating from the age of imperialism, in which great empires (which some in Brussels see the EU as becoming) treat smaller neighbouring states as satellites under their supervision. 

Not surprisingly, David Frost has said that this 'is not an argument that can hope to be accepted in the 21st Century'. 

The EU must get its collective head round the fact that the UK is an independent sovereign state and an equal partner. 

It is not difficult to understand the predicament of M. Barnier and the whole EU. Brexit and then the Covid crisis have hit them hard. 

Not only has the idea of the inevitability of European integration been undermined, but its already shaky financial and economic structure has been dealt successive body blows. 

Italians are outraged that Brussels failed to come to their aid when the epidemic hit. 

Frontiers have been closed. Financial aid has been slow and grudging. 

The whole structure of the Eurozone now faces a possibly unsustainable mountain of debt. 

To crown it all, the German Constitutional Court has warned that it may be illegal for the European Central Bank to keep lending billions to Italy, and that it may forbid Germany's central bank from chipping in. 

So putting off Britain's final exit, keeping its financial contributions going as long as possible, doing everything to prevent it from competing effectively with the EU, and keeping the notoriously pugnacious French and Spanish fishermen happy are all eminently desirable for Brussels. 

M. Barnier, getting no joy from Messrs Johnson and Frost, wrote to UK Opposition party leaders to get their support for an extension. 

The mystery is why anybody in the UK should want to go along with this. 

We loyally supported the EU while we were members – with the occasional grumble, admittedly – and we followed its rules more punctiliously than most.

But now we have left. Why this desire to stay on a leash? 

To extend the transition period would mean continuing to pay huge sums of money to the EU – which is now demanding even more because of the Covid crisis. 

It would prolong business uncertainty. It would put a stop to negotiations to improve trade with other countries, where most of our exports already go. 

So what are the arguments? The suggestion that Covid makes negotiation impossible is silly: not even M. Barnier claims this. 

Equally silly are hints that Britain might be short of food and medicines – which Europeans will be keener than ever to sell us. 

The real aim of an extension to the transition period is simply to string the process out, to shut off trade agreements with other countries, to keep us as close as possible to the EU for as long as possible in the hope that somehow we shall never leave and might eventually drift back. 

This the Labour Party appears to endorse. Far from being an obstacle, the Covid crisis, for the very reason that it has disrupted normal activity, provides an opportunity to move on, whether towards a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, or, if it refuses, to trade on ordinary World Trade Organisation terms. 

Why? Because the probable rise in unemployment means we can, and should, end free movement of people. 

Because the damage done by the coronavirus crisis means the British Government can, and should, borrow to sustain damaged regions and industries without being hampered by EU controls – and indeed the cost of Government borrowing, again because of the crisis, is near zero. 

And finally because when the damaged world economy is restructured in the wake of Covid, we need the freedom to seek the best opportunities worldwide by concluding trade agreements with more willing partners than the EU.

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