Boris Johnson led a meeting about the coronavirus remotely from the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street on Saturday after testing positive for the virus. Photo Credit: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing St.
By now, many of us are familiar with the tale of Brexit: a referendum that asked citizens of the United Kingdom (UK) whether they wanted to remain in or leave a bloc of 27 other European states, united in free trade, travel, and the flow of ideas. By a vote of 52% to 48%, the UK voted to leave, marking the first time a nation had left the European Union (EU). Flash forward four years and three prime ministers, and you reach today: a ticking clock counting down to December 31 later this year. Yet today, Brexit operates largely on the back burner of world news, another casualty of the raging COVID-19 pandemic’s chokehold on the news cycle. To truly understand what comes next for the UK in the months to come, we have to question what Brexit looks like in the shadow of the pandemic, how this has affected the UK’s government and her voters, and what it means for the future of both the UK and EU.
During the Brexit transition period, the UK will need to extricate itself from a wide array of EU policies, starting with building new trade relationships. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s current plan to require a border between Northern Ireland and the UK poses a controversial sticking point. Standing in the way of future trade agreements is the economic impact that threatens the UK and the uncertainty of a new trade relationship with the United States. Numerous companies have moved or threatened to move to EU nations after the historic vote, causing the UK to estimate that the British economy will be 4-9% smaller after Brexit.
To combat this, the UK has struck 19 deals with 50 countries and territories; this would appear to be promising progress until one realizes that these partners account for only 8% of the UK’s overall trade. The UK no longer wants to be bound by EU regulations, but the EU would prefer that UK businesses don’t offer advantages deemed unfair to the rest of the common market. This problem seems rather fundamental. If the two partners don’t reach a deal by New Year’s Eve this year, they’ll have to play by default World Trade Organization rules, imposing tariffs and other measures neither of them wants. If one thing does seem certain, it’s that these matters are trickier to resolve than they first appear. Passing the Brexit bill through Parliament cost Theresa May her legacy, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s now hangs in the balance. But this turbulent transition period has more in store. The modern UK, without the EU, is about to be baptized by fire with the coronavirus pandemic.
Operating on the outside of the European Union, the UK left the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on February 1, 2020. Before the coronavirus crisis, that meant British researchers had fewer opportunities to innovate and the UK lost its status as an attractive home for pharmaceutical companies. Now being outside the EMA means lost access to emergency bulk-buying mechanisms for medical products and worse, longer wait times and higher prices for a potential vaccine. COVID-19 has allowed the UK to see up close what it’s like for non-EU member states to share the sandbox with the rest of Europe—and it’s not going to be a fun process. Ultimately, this hits the people of the UK hardest right now, especially those who are elderly, work unstable jobs, are without sick leave, and have occupations that prevent them from working at home. These people need answers and leadership in the midst of a pandemic. But the call asking people “to come together as a nation by staying apart from each other” did not come from the Prime Minister of the UK—it came from the Taoiseach in Ireland. Instead, the people of the UK heard a radically different initial response to the pandemic, namely urging for herd immunity, which was rather emblematic of the UK’s current outsider status. The few days that the UK pushed for herd immunity—the notion that Brits should hurry and contract the virus so that the UK could start building immunity together—quickly came crashing down when analysis estimated that doing so would overwhelm the National Health Service.
Forced back into the rest of the world’s push for social distancing, reduced travel, and the shared hope of millions for a vaccine, Brexit stumbled. Named “an early victim of the pandemic” by The Economist, the trade talks between the UK and EU have quickly broken down amid pandemic fears. It’s not only the forthcoming trade treaty, but discussions on regulatory systems, immigration policies, customs controls, and critical legislation on access to European agriculture and the UK’s fisheries. Facing uncertainty, it seems inevitable that the British government will soon be asking the EU for yet another extension. This would play surprisingly well for Europe, struggling to collectively defend from a pandemic while closing shared borders, and nostalgic for the UK’s $70 billion (USD) contribution to the EU. For the UK, delaying Brexit only risks further domestic political strife. Prime Minister Johnson won on a “Get Brexit Done” motto, and while he is struggling to manage this international health emergency, he has to know that the pandemic could prove a useful distraction should his negotiating team prove unsuccessful on all of London’s terms. Realistically, however, the odds seem to favor the European Union: both the UK and EU chief negotiators are in self-isolation after showing symptoms and testing positive. Videoconferencing the talks also seems unlikely, since it would involve the equivalent of FaceTiming with 200 people. One thing that coronavirus makes abundantly clear, then, is that when faced with emergency, the power rests with the collective, and this is not likely to change throughout the rest of Johnson’s remaining eight months to “Get Brexit Done.”
Where Britons stand, however, is another matter. One would expect that seeing their government’s crippled response to the pandemic, especially in comparative terms to responses from other European Union member states, could theoretically change hearts and minds. While polling is currently scarce on this, data from the premiership campaign in the fall showed that most voters from the original 2016 referendum stand by their vote (88% of Remain voters and 86% of Leave voters). Here’s the caveat: among those who did not vote in 2016, 53% want to stay, and 26% want to leave. That contrast is thrown into a harsher light when considering Scottish voters who voted to stay in the EU by the highest margin among all UK member states—62-38%. With the prospect of Brexit now very real—and clearly against their wishes—Scots have increased their calls for independence. Whether Scotland votes to secede or not is no longer the issue; the UK will have to deal with civil unrest from Scotland in the coming months or face the angry “Brexiteers” if they decide to file for a transition period extension. The UK faces the very definition of being forced between a rock and a hard place: the fate of their fragile union or their inability to manage a global pandemic without EU support. What the UK chooses will certainly define its chapters moving forward. What the choice will be, however, depends on stalled negotiations and a virus that can’t be reasoned with. Checkmate.
 “Brexit: All You Need to Know.”
 Benjamin Mueller, “What is Brexit? And What Happens Next?” The New York Times, January 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/world/europe/what-is-brexit.html.
 Edgington, “Brexit.”
 Victoria Rees, “EMA Announces Next Steps for UK Pharma Industry After Brexit,” European Pharmaceutical Review, January 31, 2020, https://www.europeanpharmaceuticalreview.com/news/111816/ema-announces-next-steps-for-uk-pharma-industry-after-brexit/.
 Martin McKee, Anniek de Ruijter, and Mark Flear, “Brexit Threatens UK’s Ability to Respond to a Future Pandemic,” The Guardian, March 14, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/why-brexit-will-delay-uk-getting-vaccine-and-cost-more.
 Toby Helm, “Brexit Means Coronavirus Vaccine Will Be Slower to Reach UK,” The Guardian, March 14, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/coronavirus-vaccine-delays-brexit-ema-expensive.
 “This is the Calm Before the Storm—Before the Surge,” Address by Leo Varadkhar, Taoiseach of Ireland, delivered via television on March 17, 2020, distributed by Vital Speeches of the Day, Professional Speechwriters Association.
 Owen Matthews, “Britain Drops Its Go-It-Alone Approach to Coronavirus,” Foreign Policy, March 17, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/17/britain-uk-coronavirus-response-johnson-drops-go-it-alone/.
 “Covid-19 is Delaying Brexit Negotiations,” The Economist, March 21, 2020, https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/03/21/covid-19-is-delaying-brexit-negotiations.
 Karim El-Bar, “Burning Question: Will COVID-19 Delay Brexit?” Anadolu Agency, March 21, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/economy/burning-question-will-covid-19-delay-brexit/1773849.
 “Covid-19 is Delaying.”
 El-Bar, “Burning Question.”
 “Scottish Government Leader Urges UK to Stick to EU Standards,” AP, February 10, 2020, https://apnews.com/8e065c0604318956f060dfc6688ad1cc.