‘They can effectively blame Covid for everything’: What coronavirus means for Brexit talks

Press quote (The Independent)
12 May 2020

“We’re all doing it,” says Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow and trade expert at the Centre for European Reform. “We all know what the limitations are when it comes to teleconferencing. You lose all of the informal interaction. Just by personalities interacting you get a much better grasp of the person you’re talking to.

“And you can have chats about normal things as well and it just builds up a better working relationship: the problem with formal videoconferences is there’s no time for just talking about ‘how are the kids’? Those sorts of conversations actually create a better atmosphere.”

...“The top of government just isn’t focused on the talks right now – rightly so – they’re dealing with the pandemic and the fallout; Boris Johnson’s been unwell,” says Lowe.

“So we have this issue with the negotiations where all the actual decisions that need to be taken in order to conclude the free trade agreement on issues such as state aid, level playing field, role of the court of justice – are big, political, meaty issues. They’re not technical issues.

“They’re not somewhere where David Frost and his negotiators can just find some clever tweaks and you’ve done it, these are big political decisions that require a change of course from the UK.

“We’re not in a place where we’re even thinking about that. In order to get to a point where you can make those compromises you have to go through a lot of political theatre, I think, and at the moment everyone’s focused on Covid-19. Which is fine.”

...“They’ll be designing all sorts of new laws for the 27 – we don’t know what they’re going to be, what they’re going to cost, or whether they’re going to suit our conditions,” the UK government source said. “It does not seem sensible for us to be bound into an unpredictable situation.” The situation is, of course, already highly unpredictable.

“I’m not in the camp of people – and I should say other people who follow trade negotiations disagree on this – who think trade negotiations need to take a long time. I don’t think there is really any technical reason why they have to take seven years, for example,” says trade expert Lowe.

“Could the trade agreement be done this year, even with the time wasted? Of course it could be, it just requires political decisions to be made and it to be decided in the UK in particular that they’re going to upset a few constituencies. Then it could be done.

“Is there still time to do it this year? Yeah, of course there is, I just think it’s massively irresponsible to do it this year because you’re asking businesses to adapt to a big change – whether there’s an agreement or not – right after they’ve had to deal with the fallout of a global pandemic and a recession.”