EU Member States have rediscovered their identities as nations, and have sought comfort in the national idea, argues Sean Walsh

I'm surprised it took them so long but finally they are reasserting themselves: the EU fanatics, unreconciled to any version of history that doesn't bear the nihil obstat of the Brussels nomenklatura are looking at the current pandemic and discerning not just Plague but Opportunity.

It was always going to happen. The context may be horrifyingly different, but the methodology is familiar: shape the language of the discourse to maintain the fiction that the "Brexit debate" is still somehow a live one. Specifically: by shifting the discussion in the direction of maximum ambiguity. In 2016 the ambiguities were economic; in 2020 the uncertainty has been helpfully -for them- incubated in the meat markets of China. "We are in a global crisis", they say "it is just not viable that we can conclude any trade agreement with the EU by December of this year. The transition period must be extended".

Those advocating for an extension to the transition phase talk almost as if the EU and the UK are interlocutors of equal standing. This is not the case. The UK is constrained by the bespoke straitjacket that was fitted for us prior to our technical departure at the end of January. Boris Johnson's Withdrawal Agreement codified the subtle and not so subtle mechanisms of preserved membership previously "negotiated" by Theresa May. During transition we are supplicants, bound by the EU's Common Commercial Policy, included in the scope of its Regulations (including any new ones) and subject to the judgments of its (politically constituted) Courts. And we continue to pay for these privileges of subjugation ? in the bizarro universe of transition we have taxation but no representation.

So just to be clear: this jackboot-on-throat situation is the one the advocates of extension wish to maintain. Indefinitely in some cases. I would say the burden of proof is pretty much with them. They have three arguments which whether taken separately or in combination do not supply them with a magic bullet.

First there is the argument from process: the suggestion that the negotiators, due to C-19, simply do not have time to agree an FTA before December. There are two problems with this claim: that it is false and that it would not matter even if it were true. If an extension to transition is to happen then one or both of the parties must apply for it by the end of June. There is no reason why, given the political will, the shape of an FTA should not be discernible by then. And if not then no problem because no such agreement is necessary given that the legal structures are in place for us to leave transition on December 31st by default, and on GATT XXIV or WTO terms. We do not need an FTA to be signed off as a necessary condition of our exit from transition. To put it another way: we do not need a deal to leave, we can leave and then complete the deal.

Write for us.

We're always on the lookout for talented writers and welcome submissions. Please send your opinion piece or pitch to: editor@commentcentral.co.uk

The argument from process adds up to little more than this: that we will no longer see a UK Prime Minister do the "perp walk" up the steps of a plane at RAF Northolt in order to go cap in hand to an EU apparatchik. I see this as no great loss.

Then there is the argument from consequence: that the pandemic will somehow intensify the social and economic disruptions of a de facto exit from the comfort blanket of the EU. It is not quite clear what form the advocates of this Rejoiner strategy think these disruptions will take. A pan-European lockdown perhaps? Planes not taking off? Contractions in quarterly GDP of 30%? It is almost worrying that they can make this argument with a straight face. In truth of course, the disruptions which will be a consequence of exiting transition will be as nothing compared to the catastrophe of staying in it. We are, at present, contingently liable for the economic costs of any (inevitable) Eurozone bail outs. Why does this variable not form part of the Rejoiner calculus of utility? Actually, I think we know why.

And finally, there is what philosophers might call the argument from essence: that remaining in transition, especially when times call for solidarity, is a good thing in itself. But to the extent that this is just a new version of the appeal to the merits of EU membership, this argument has been settled. And to the extent that it is not, the argument is absurd. Furthermore, if there is such a thing as European solidarity, then this crisis has done little to amplify it.

The Corona pandemic has required a reconceptualization of the "European issue" but not in a way the Rejoiners should be comfortable with. What has happened is that the Member States have rediscovered their identities as nations; they have sought comfort in the national idea, and its attendant cultural and historical loyalties. The European Union, which is now more a theological than an economic project, has looked on like an out-of-touch priest, bewildered that the parishioners are unwilling to attend Mass just because there is something more urgent going on outside the church.

The EU has as its telos the dissolution of the nation state. But it is the latter which generates the spontaneous forms of allegiance that make stable political order possible. This is the incoherence at the heart of the European "project". C-19, awful as it is, has served to emphasise that.

When this is over, and prior to its inevitable collapse, the EU will do what all bullies do when they have been humiliated: it will reassert itself and will do so spitefully. We need to be well out of it when this happens. Extending the transition period would be immoral; simple as that.

26 votes

Sign-up for free to stay up to date with the latest political news, analysis and insight from the Comment Central team.

By entering your email address you are agreeing to Comment Central’s privacy policy