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by Janice Morphet
30th September 2020

Brexit is the elephant in COVID-19’s room. It is at the edge of our eyeline and we almost catch a glimpse of it in the changes to daily life that the pandemic has brought us. In facing the disease, we are uncertain about what it will mean for us individually and it is hard to comprehend what effects it may have on us as a society, our finances and our relationships.

If COVID-19’s path is uncertain, the outcomes from Brexit seem incalculable. Will it be more of the same? Another round of economic uncertainty that will pass once someone has worked out how our new lives will be lived without the principles, norms, codes and rights that we have been using since 1972?

Unlike COVID-19, there is no possibility of a one-shot (or was that moonshot?) antidote or vaccination that can keep the UK ‘safe’ in the future. In becoming a sovereign and independent state in an increasingly interdependent world, the immediate costs of this status, regained after nearly 50 years of cooperation, have yet to be understood. The longer-term effects are unknowable. In the short term, we will see a continuation of many press and social media ‘surprise’ stories about the changes that the EU is ‘imposing’ on us, that are already being foretold for January 2021. These will include the need to purchase a visa for travel to any EU state, except Ireland. If you take a pet, there will be no more pet travel licences and a return to a quarantine regime. Driving will require an international driving licence and if you fall sick or have an accident, then there is no longer any EHIC to cover your costs – and health insurance costs will rise dramatically. If you live in the EU, then as a British citizen, it is only possible to live for 90 days out of 180 without having a residence permit and if you want to spend money, then your bank and credit cards may already have been cancelled if you bank with Lloyds, Barclays or Coutts banks.

At home, the uncertainties will start with the logistics industry for food, goods and medicines. The requirements for new paperwork at the ports will place an additional cost on each container which some estimate to be £800 per load. Trading with other countries on WTO rules, if no deal is secured, will mean greater tariffs and higher prices. If you are concerned about air or water quality, it will be left to UK courts to use and interpret EU laws that are ‘rolled over’ with the expectation of greater challenges from those who do not wish to embrace these standards. If the government does not enforce these standards, there is no court that will be able to challenge it. If you consider that the government has incorrectly applied the rules, then the removal of the principles of administrative law and judicial review will reduce your rights as a citizen. Places of socioeconomic deprivation which were relying on EU funding for development will be left hanging, as subsidies for their projects will end in 2021. If you live in Northern Ireland, the uncertainties are increased about the way ahead. Will the Scottish and Welsh parliaments remain secure without the underpinning EU treaty principles of subsidiarity?

What prospects, then, for our lives after Brexit as we learn to live with its consequences alongside COVID-19? They may be conflated at the outset but, as we emerge from the pandemic, they will be increasingly clear. Can anything save us from these consequences? Firstly, we need a deal and a government that is willing to really understand the costs of no deal. The moves in Parliament, expected this week, to start to limit the executive’s powers over the pandemic are a positive sign. While many Conservative MPs want Brexit to be implemented, they are increasingly aware that the cost that the PM is willing to pay may be a price that is too high for civil liberties. Secondly, the poor relationship between Number 10 and Parliament continues to ignore the basic rules of governing – the ability to add up. Conservative MPs are the only group that can unseat the PM – do we have to wait long for the first stalking horse candidate? The numerous U-turns since the start of the pandemic have demonstrated that the Conservative Party will not put up with the continuing poor delivery on key aspects of our lives – health, education and jobs. This frustration has continued to increase with Conservative ‘grandee’ MPs publicly criticising their leadership and its actions on national media as well as in Parliament – their detachment and incredulity openly visible. Statements that the UK is willing to break international law made in the House of Commons by a Secretary of State, at the behest of a Number 10 SPAD, clearly announce where political power lies at the moment. The end of September may see the tide begin to turn and this may be critical for the UK’s post-Brexit future. We will see…

Dr Janice Morphet is a Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning. A Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, she has been chief executive of a local authority, head of University school of planning and landscape, a senior adviser on local government in central government and a consultant.

Beyond Brexit? by Janice Morphet is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £8.79. You can also pre-order Janet’s The Impact of COVID-19 on Devolution for £7.99

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