Anyone involved in 2016’s EU referendum, or the subsequent Brexit negotiations, might well have thought they had played a role in the most defining political event of our lifetimes. But that was BC – Before Covid-19.
The global pandemic we are currently living through has and will change our lives much more than Brexit, which is starting to feel slightly parochial in comparison.
The big question for this year is whether an EU-UK trade deal will be agreed. Will the transition period end on 31 December with a deal (something that possibly looks like a supercharged version of Canada’s trade deal with the EU), or will we trade with the EU on WTO terms (as Australia and many other countries do)?
I remain optimistic that we will agree a deal. Like many others, one of the benefits of the lockdown has been the ability to attend events (or rather, webinars) that I wouldn’t necessarily have attended in person. I have had to listen to a succession of regulators speak about their response to the coronacrisis, and they often get asked a question about the Brexit negotiations at the end.
And every response I have heard suggests that, as far as their sector is concerned, they are on top of things. The negotiations and exchanges of information have continued during the crisis, and everything is in place for a deal to be agreed once there is the political input to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
December’s general election convinced the country that it was now time to move on, and ‘Get Brexit Done’. And I believe the current crisis has shown the EU that they have other, frankly bigger, issues to deal with.
Meanwhile the mood music from Boris Johnson’s meeting with his so-called arch nemesis, President Macron, last week – the leader who was supposedly set to scupper a deal with the UK – indicates that the ground is now laid for a deal later in the year.
This, in my opinion, will be a positive new chapter for both the EU and the UK. And I suspect my former foes on the Remain side in the referendum will be pleasantly surprised at how global Britain’s approach is after Brexit – something I hoped for as I campaigned for a Leave vote in 2016.
One thing that the coronacrisis has highlighted is just how important the rest of the world is to our health and wellbeing in the UK.
From the nurses, doctors and ancillary staff who have come to the UK work in our NHS, to the reliance on overseas suppliers for personal protective equipment, to the manufacturing facilities outside of the UK required for a potential vaccine, to the switch last week to using the Apple-Google model for our tracing app – all these examples show the limits of self-sufficiency.
The best future for Britain requires us to have a global outlook. We will be better neighbours with the EU than we were housemates.
But with Brexit, we will also be able to develop a more global outlook. Brexit was a big deal, but it will not be the biggest issue of our lifetimes. And we should remember to keep a global perspective.
By Matthew Elliott, former CEO of Vote Leave.