A Brexit pause is essential amid coronavirus crisis

Leonie Cooper is Labour's London Assembly Economy Spokesperson. Picture: Archant

Leonie Cooper is Labour's London Assembly Economy Spokesperson. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

LEONIE COOPER, a Labour member of the London Assembly, makes the common sense case for an extension to EU negotiations.

Brexit is, at last, yesterday's battle. As everyone must now accept, that fight is over. Those supporting Remain lost, and while we may make the case for Britain to maintain close relations with the EU, we must also recognise that the government has the majority it needs in parliament to deliver the Brexit it wants.

That Brexit may even mean leaving the transitional period without a trade deal. It's a course of action that is fraught with difficulty at the best of times, but in this period of unprecedented uncertainty, I think it would be irresponsible not to set out the risks of doing so, and to explain why I oppose a hard, cliff-edge Brexit now more than ever.

In my heart of hearts, I continue to believe that Britain would be better off in, or at least close, to the EU. There's only so much political energy one can expend when there's little hope of delivering the desired outcome. But influencing the outcome is what we must try and do. With negotiations sidelined while the government grapples with both the economic and health consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, in just a couple of months from now we will have passed the point of no return. June 30 is the UK's final day on which it can request an extension to the transitional period, of either one or two years.

Right now, Brexit is understandably far from most of our minds. The impacts of Covid-19 – social isolation, lost loved ones, financial stress, the needs and heroics of our health and social care workers – are what is occupying all of us. The priority for most people right now is just getting by and getting through each day. Trade deals, fraught talks in Brussels, battles in parliament and huge demonstrations aren't just yesterday's news – the very concept of them has become implausible.

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It is precisely because of these changed conditions that an extension to the transitional period is needed so urgently. I don't say this because I'm raging against the dying of the light, desperate for a fleeting few years closer to Europe, before inevitably being cast adrift – I say this because of the current turbulence.

The government is clearly set on a hard Brexit and having won the election they should ordinarily be free to pursue that outcome. But these are extraordinary times.

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We don't know when this crisis will end. In the intervening period, our priorities should be saving lives and protecting our economy as best as we can. All of our energies and every lever of government should be focused on those outcomes. We simply cannot allow extensive resources to be poured into trade negotiations (not just with the EU, but the rest of the world too) or no-deal preparation. We do not have the capacity and it would be a huge distraction.

Worse still is the disruption that no deal would bring to supply chains. Just last month, secretary of state for transport Grant Shapps lauded deals with France and Ireland to keep freight routes open, and goods and medicine flowing. But the frictionless continuity of these freight routes is completely dependent upon those structures of the EU and EEA that we all take for granted – the single market, the customs union, all the common rules on goods and services.

It would be the greatest challenge our country has faced in decades to rip all that up in normal times. But to knowingly do that when our 'just-in-time' systems are at once so fragile and so important, would be a truly wanton act of destruction. The pause button is there, and the EU – aware as much of impacts here, as on either side of the Irish and North Seas – has repeatedly indicated a willingness to make use of it.

No-one can blame our government for the recent scenes of empty shop shelves – but there can be no excuse for enacting this outcome deliberately. The 'hostile environment' has already combined with the pandemic to create the very real prospect of fruit and vegetables rotting in British fields this summer.

So my plea is a simple one, made in good faith. Not to stop or reverse Brexit. Not to stay close to the EU, in perpetuity, by the back door. Nothing to do with my own views on London and Britain's place in Europe. It is simply a plea for common sense to prevail, for the government to recognise its limitations, and in the short-term focus on the common good. To concentrate on eradicating this awful disease and choose – as we can – to fight just one battle at a time.

Leonie Cooper is Labour's London Assembly economy spokesperson

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