2nd July 2020

When uncertain meets unprecedented

With COVID-19 taking over life as we know it, will the Government’s intention of seeing through the EU Exit transition period at the end of this year be possible?

By Sarah Caughey
Head of Policy at CTSI
It remains important that we hold the Government to account on the high-level commitment made to high standards of consumer protection

After months of twists and turns, the UK officially exited the EU at 11pm on January 31, 2020, and entered into the transition period which will end on December 31, 2020. In a written statement to Parliament at the beginning of February, the Government asserted that “There is complete certainty that at the end of 2020 the process of transition… will be complete”. It certainly did not envisage a major global crisis precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. So, what happens when the uncertainty of our future relationship with the EU meets the unprecedented circumstances and consequences of COVID-19?

On a practical level the work of the negotiating teams has been taking place virtually, after a period of delay. At the time of writing, the parties have completed a third round of negotiations, and the progress reports are not exactly glowing. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has called for “new dynamism in order to avoid a stalemate”, stating that he was “still determined but not optimistic”. David Frost, who leads negotiations from the UK’s side, has commented that there has been “very little progress” and has declared that “the UK will continue to work hard to find an agreement, for as long as there is a constructive process in being, and continues to believe that this is possible.” Both sides are calling upon the other to adjust their approaches around the virtual table.

The clock is ticking and yet again in the EU Exit journey as key milestones loom. The first high-level conference, at which the parties will take stock of the progress made so far, takes place in June.

Unforeseen events

A decision must also be made by the end of June on extending the transition period. The text of the Withdrawal Agreement provides for the possibility of an extension to the transition period for up to one or two years if the Joint Committee adopts such a decision before July 1, 2020.

Frost has previously commented: “At the end of this year, we would recover our political and economic independence in full – why would we want to postpone it? That is the point of Brexit.” Indeed, legislation is in place which prohibits extension of the implementation period – providing that “a Minister of the Crown may not agree in the Joint Committee to an extension of the implementation period”.

These political deadlines were set before the world, and Government bandwidth, was gripped by the COVID-19 crisis. However, the Government has maintained its position that the UK will not extend the negotiation process beyond December 31. Do the prevailing circumstances mean that the timeframe has gone from optimistic to unrealistic?

Uncertainty around exiting the EU persists. Negotiations may go down to the wire to reach an agreement, meaning that the details and steps for implementation will be last-minute. In the event that negotiations prove unsuccessful, the cliff-edge may be different in some respects from previous “no deal” scenarios as the Withdrawal Agreement is in place.

However, the Institute for Government posits that “in all other areas of UK–EU co-operation, no deal on the future relationship in December 2020 would be no different from no deal in the first phase of Brexit negotiations. Businesses in the UK and EU would face the same consequences – with implications for UK-EU trade in goods, services, data transfers and security co-operation.”

In his Greenwich speech, Boris Johnson put it like this: “The choice is emphatically not ‘deal or no-deal’… The question is whether we agree a trading relationship with the EU comparable to Canada’s – or more like Australia’s.”

It remains important that we hold the Government to account on the high-level commitment made in the Political Declaration to high standards of consumer protection. The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee recently said it would welcome a public statement from the Government that they remain committed to high standards of consumer protection. I would echo that call. The CTSI Think Tank will continue to provide key insights into the seismic effect of exiting the EU on our system of trading standards, building upon the contributions to date.

From cuts to COVID

Trading standards will remain at the forefront of protecting consumers and supporting businesses. However, it must be observed that the implications of exiting the EU, negotiating trade deals with other countries, and economic recovery from the coronavirus, will all come on top of the existing impacts of austerity measures and cuts to the profession.

It is hard to find an aspect of life that has not been impacted by this pandemic. The EU Exit process is no exception – indeed the chief negotiators on both sides have had to go into self-isolation. The UK, along with rest of the world, has found itself in unprecedented times. Unprecedented because of the global reach and impact of the COVID-19 virus. Unprecedented because of the measures taken by the Government to respond to and address the raft of emerging and rapidly evolving issues arising as a consequence. Unprecedented in the short- and long-term effects on consumers, businesses and the economy as a whole.

It is not possible to view these events in isolation. The path of the UK exiting the EU is now intrinsically linked with the road to recovery from COVID-19. So, what happens when uncertain meets unprecedented? In short, it is unknown.

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