Former UK officials call for Brexit transition extension

By on 23/04/2020
A government source reportedly said Downing Street's attempt to row back on parts of the agreement was part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland. (Photo by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street via flickr).

Former UK civil service chiefs – including retired officials such as Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, head of the civil service Bob Kerslake, and permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union Philip Rycroft – have urged the government to consider extending the Brexit transition period in light of the coronavirus crisis.

The transition period is set to expire on 31 December 2020, at which point Britain will either leave the trading bloc without a trade deal or move to a new negotiated arrangement. The government has until July to request an extension from the EU. Despite officials focusing their efforts on responding to the coronavirus pandemic, prime minister Boris Johnson has insisted that it is possible to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement by the current deadline.

A Downing Street official said in a recent briefing that government “will not ask to extend” and that “if the EU asks, we will say no”.

But Rycroft told Prospect Magazine that it is “simple common sense to ask for an extension of the transition period” when you factor in “the huge economic uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic”.

Kerslake agreed, telling Prospect: “The timetable for delivering a trade deal was already extremely ambitious. The lost time as a consequence of COVID-19 has moved this from being ambitious to almost impossible.” O’Donnell added that there has clearly been much less time for negotiation than could ever have been anticipated, arguing that “more time could lead to a better outcome for both sides”.

Will the public accept a delay?

There are signs that the British public would be relaxed about a transition extension. A poll by Focaldata carried out late last month found that two-thirds of Britons – and almost half of Leave voters – want an extension so the government can “focus 100% of its energy on dealing with coronavirus for the rest of the year”.

Kerslake, who is a former unpaid adviser to the opposition Labour party, said that given the severe economic impact of the pandemic, “the priority must be to avoid any more economic shocks and focus on the recovery. In the circumstances, the public would accept a delay and I am genuinely puzzled why the government hasn’t moved to confirm this”.

Ivan Rogers, the former permanent representative of the UK to the EU, told Prospect that he feels the government is unlikely to change its stance, and as a result is “in reality forcing firms which are facing an existential crisis over COVID-19 right now – and for the next several months – to prepare simultaneously for a no-deal exit at year end”. Rogers resigned in 2017, following the leak of a memo in which he wrote that it was his private view that a settlement between the UK and the EU might not be reached for 10 years, if at all.

When the UK left the EU on 31 January, it had a Withdrawal Agreement in place – covering issues such as citizens’ rights and budget contributions – but decisions over the trading relationship were expected to be addressed in negotiations during a standstill ‘transition period’ lasting to the end of 2020. Officials are tasked with agreeing new trade deals, putting in place new customs procedures, and setting up new regulatory agencies in areas currently covered by the EU. Arriving at the end of the transition period without a trade deal would leave the UK trading with the EU on WTO terms, instantly creating new trade barriers, tariffs and paperwork for importers and exporters.   

Rogers added that this “carries risks of seriously exacerbating a very difficult economic position at that point, and of disrupting supply chains across the Channel at a time they may be critical for the UK”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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