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We can’t afford dogmatism on the Brexit timetable

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Geraint Talfan Davies

In a world where common sense prevailed our recovering Prime Minister would by now be on the phone to the President of the European Commission or, if contact with Brussels is just too much to bear, to the Chancellor of Germany, to ask for more time to negotiate a Brexit deal.

He would have the perfect personal excuse: “Look Ursula (or Angela) I am only weeks past being literally at death’s door. I’m really not 100 per cent. My wife’s just had a baby. I’ve got an epidemic to cope with. The death toll is still mounting daily and has just passed the equivalent of the entire population of Rhyl. I really can’t be bothering with North Sea fish stocks. Do you mind?”

As it is he is pretending that in less than eight weeks time – the end of June – his government and this country will be in a position to say conclusively that we are on course to complete, by the end of the year, the most important trade deal for this country in its history – all the while not knowing whether we will have “wrestled the virus to the floor” or whether it will have got to its feet again before the final bell to land a nasty sucker punch on us all.

In a period where members of the government constantly parrot that they are “relying on the science”, they should see that their approach to Brexit should, likewise, be evidence-based. And what is that evidence?

First, everyone knew – on both sides of the argument – that the timetable was tight. That is why, in relation to the transition period, permission for a one-off extension of up to two years was written into the Withdrawal Agreement. Paradoxically, it is also why a Brexit obsessed government wrote into the Act clauses that deliberately cut down its room for manoeuvre.

To extend the transition period Parliament will have to amend the Withdrawal Act before the 30th of June. But that is perfectly doable, if the will is there.

Second, a British public that has reacted so sensibly to the coronavirus epidemic, is equally sensible in its assessment of what is now possible or impossible on the Brexit front. It is not asking for Brexit to be set aside, but it is saying very clearly that nothing should get in the way of total concentration on tackling the Covid epidemic. And it is saying so time and again.

At the end of March a YouGov poll said that 55% of the population were in favour of extending the transition period. At the beginning of April a WPI Strategy said 67% were of that opinion. A week later a Focaldata poll confirmed this view, with 66% of the public believing that the UK government “should focus 100% of its energy on dealing with the coronavirus for the rest of the year.”

In that poll although 36% wanted the transition period to be extended “for a maximum of a year”, 64% wanted it “extended indefinitely until the crisis is resolved.” Interestingly, 49% of Leave voters, 48% of Conservative voters and even 45% of Brexit Party voters were of the same opinion.

So what is it about the Brexit issue that seems to put it beyond any question or qualification, however sensible?

Shops and pubs and restaurants can close, retailers can go into administration, tourism can shut shop, airlines and planemakers can declare thousands redundant, football and rugby can be put in the freezer, theatres and cinemas can stay dark, universities can lose overseas students by the thousand, farmers may even need to slaughter livestock, global trade can come to a shuddering halt, the national debt can rise to a level seen previously only in war – and yet, despite this unprecedented economic mayhem, Brexiteers insist on carrying their cherished Ming vase across the battlefield, blind to the dead and deaf to the cries of the wounded and the grieving.

There are others, too, that the Government is determined not to hear, not least the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

Put yourself in the position of the Welsh Government – of any Welsh Government, of whatever party, in this situation:

It governs a part of the UK that is at the bottom on the economic league tables. It faces, at one and the same time, the two biggest economic and social disruptions in peacetime in modern history – Brexit and Covid – even more damaging in combination. It looks around, and can see no solid ground.

Looking ahead, no Welsh Government could see clarity about its future relationship with its most important market – Europe. It would have to fear that dogmatism will end in a ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union. At the same time, it would see no clarity about UK policies needed to fill the policy and funding space vacated by the EU: no detail about the long promised Shared Prosperity Fund, neither its scale, nor its structure nor its administration – central or devolved; no detail on the replacement of research funding for its universities.

It would also have to assess the simultaneous effects on the economy of both the withdrawal from Europe and Covid’s prompting of a retreat from globalisation. To be fair the latter could have a positive benefit if it prompts some rebuilding of our domestic industrial base. But, again, that will have to be weighed against any detriment to our economic relationships with China and other developing countries. China, in particular, is unlikely now to be rolling out the welcome mat for our Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss.

Other negative consequences that any Welsh Government may have to face are in the aero industry. If there were to be a major contraction of international travel – both for business and tourism – requiring fewer planes to be made and bought, would Airbus plants within the EU really be willing to contract just to allow an Airbus plant in north Wales to survive outside the EU fence?

These are questions that all political parties have to face – even Welsh Conservatives, if they are serious about wanting to hold the reins in Cardiff Bay after next year’s elections.

The UK Government is currently creating an impression that even a third world war would not shake its determination to stick to its pre-determined Brexit timetable – that everything must bow to the virus, except Brexit. It is an insult to the sick and the dead and their families, and testimony to an alarming obsession. It defies common sense.

Geraint Talfan Davies is the former Chair of Wales for Europe