John Cotter / Sep 2021
When on 21 September the Guardian newspaper led with the headline “Prepare for winter of discontent, UK warned”, it seemed to confirm the grim inevitability of that phrase, with its distinctly British historical connotations, appearing. Britain currently faces a multitude of challenges: food shortages, a carbon dioxide shortage, sharply rising energy prices, and a haulage crisis.
Brexit is not the cause, or at least the sole cause, of these problems. Nonetheless, Brexit, or more specifically Britain’s exit from the European Single Market, has compounded them. When the first lockdowns occurred in March 2020 in response to Covid-19, the UK was in the Brexit transition period provided for in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, and was, therefore, still de facto in the Single Market. In fact, but for a decision by the British government not to extend this period before the end of June 2020, the UK could still be in the Single Market, until the end of 2021 or 2022 at the latest.
While one may disagree with the approaches taken by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson after the referendum, there was some logic to the argument that the referendum outcome implied that the UK should leave the Single Market. Much of the referendum had been contested on the issue of free movement of persons. It was also judged that there was a general popular dislike of supranational institutions such as the European Court of Justice and a need to be free of them.
Johnson’s haste to finalise a withdrawal agreement with the EU and ensure a swift exit was also understandable. The period after the referendum result had allowed opposition to Brexit, or to a hard Brexit at least, to coalesce, especially in Parliament. After the ruling of the European Court of Justice in the Wightman case, in which the Court concluded that the UK could withdraw its notification of intention to withdraw unilaterally, the spectre of such a possibility haunted Brexiteers.
However, the UK government’s antipathy to the Single Market and the rush to leave it during the transition period is more difficult to rationalise. After the December 2019 election, Johnson enjoyed a secure majority. There was no longer any threat that the decision to leave the EU would be reversed. While the entire UK did, from a Brexiteer’s point of view, remain locked into the Single Market during the transition period, that period was due to expire at the end of 2020. While it could be extended once, for either a one-year or two-year period, there was no existing legal means of extending beyond the end of 2022.
A decision on such an extension had to be made in the Joint Committee, co-chaired by the EU and the UK, prior to 1 July 2020. Despite the EU indicating its openness to an extension, the UK government made it clear it would not countenance it. This intransigence must be placed in context. The UK was a few months into the pandemic, and it would be almost another six months before the UK’s mass vaccination programme would begin. Supermarket shortages and supply chain issues had already been experienced early in the pandemic. The EU and UK appeared far from concluding a trade and future cooperation agreement before the end of 2020. The UK seemed underprepared for the border issues that would arise from a chaotic no-deal or thin-deal end to the transition period. There was no significant pressure coming from the opposition on Brexit-related issues.
As hard as the wisdom of the decision not to extend was to fathom in the summer of 2020, a possible impending winter of difficulty lends that decision greater significance in retrospect. The conspiratorially minded may point to the possibility that the British government calculated that the effects of the pandemic might provide cover for any negative consequences emerging from Single-Market exit. Johnson likely felt pressure from influential backbench MPs in his party. Again, however, these pressures were nowhere near as significant as they had been during the period prior to the exit date. It appears to have been a decision made with a relatively free hand.
It remains to be seen how this winter will unfold in Britain. If the predictions of hardship are accurate, then the UK government’s decision not to extend the Brexit transition period back in June 2020 is one that may well be raised to question the government’s judgement, as well as its ability to set aside, even temporarily, its hard Brexit ideology in the name of pragmatism.