By Alex Johnson
It is often said that all good things come to those who wait. Whilst patience is indeed a virtue, it is not always a profitable one. With the Brexit negotiations deadline being the 31st December this year and with enough delays already being made since the 2016 referendum, time is running short. When one realises that it has been nearly six months since the Prime Minister ratified the withdrawal agreement, the sprint to reach an acceptable agreement for the British side of negotiations is needed now more than ever.
Because of the unfortunate series of events that the COVID-19 epidemic has hit the world with, the possibility for an agreement between David Frost and Michel Barnier to be reached soon is dwindling. The recent controversy involving Dominic Cummings has only exacerbated matters further – especially with the pro-Remainers, the civil service, and the press all equally baying for the PM's chief advisor's blood in order to fulfil their revenge against the mastermind of the Leave campaign. By the same token, these new pressures that complement the stew of criticisms against Boris Johnson may rush his government's need for an exit strategy – rushed so much that it completely defies the result desired by its supporters and allows Remainers to appear somewhat triumphant in their attempts to jeopardise Brexit altogether.
A deadly opportunity for such a betrayal to the 2016 referendum result to occur has recently surfaced amidst the layers of negativity that currently infects the British media – an extension of negotiations offered by the European Commission. The SNP's Westminster Group Leader Ian Blackford, when he possibly experienced a lapse in memory of him not being involved in the negotiations, shared a tweet on the 27th May that showed a screenshot of a letter by Michel Barnier to the "Honourable and Right Honourable MPs" (which merely consisted of MPs from the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Green Party and the Alliance Party). Whilst noting that the official policy of the British Government is to not agree to any extension period, Barnier states that the "European Union has always said that we remain open on this matter", as along as the decision for an extension is made before the 1st July, "accompanied by an agreement on a financial contribution by the United Kingdom" of course. Now that time has already passed into June, the Johnson government will feel the pressures of agreeing to a one- or two-years extension even more.
To become the Faust of such an offer would, like for the protagonist of the legend, lead to great repercussions. What Blackford also forgot to mention (and perhaps for his own convenience) is that the EU's next seven-year budget begins next year, with the Commission currently failing to progress in the negotiation of its policies. Again, COVID-19 has hardly made this stalemate any easier for the EU as it has for the UK's situation. With desperate times calling for desperate measures, it is through Barnier's offer to the UK Parliament that seeks to ameliorate the EU's budget impasse at the expense of the UK's attempt to conclude Brexit.
How this could develop is through the UK's status within the EU during the current withdrawal negotiations. According to a House of Commons briefing paper on Britain's current financial settlement, the UK "will contribute to, and participate in, the 2020 EU Budget, as part of the transition period". However, it is ensured that "any changes made to the budget or its financing after the withdrawal date will not apply to the UK, and the UK will not be obliged to contribute to any additional funding beyond what is set out in the Withdrawal Agreement" and "neither pay more nor earlier than if it had remained a Member State". It is therefore clear that regardless of COVID-19, the UK will be paying an equal share into the EU's budget, unlike the extra £1.7 billion it had to pay for its over performing economy in 2014, a largely forgotten but major factor in causing the UK to leave in the first place.
On the other hand, because the EU's current budget talks to organise the next seven years of its finances are at a standstill, the EU may delay its talks into next year – especially with its finances being inconvenienced by its Mediterranean debt-ridden member states and the economic costs of COVID-19 being the proverbial cherry on top. The EU going into financial dilapidation puts its own existence at risk. For many of its mandarins, its panacea can only be developed through abundant funding that is a requisite for equally abundant spending. Extending the UK's financial technicalities of its withdrawal process would certainly help ease Europe's pain, but would be a bitter pill for the Johnson government to swallow.
This month is thus a decisive moment for Brexit's future. It may finally free itself from the chains that have been adamantine for the last four years; or could extend the obligations to of its withdrawal agreement as it tries to escape from its European master. For some, perhaps the current epidemic has so much paramount importance that it should put Brexit aside altogether. But doing so, if the current Conservative government signs the dotted line of Barnier's proposal before the 1st July, would undo the last four years of progress Britain has made, along with making the tribulations it suffered be in vain.