Britain will leave the European Union’s (EU) single market at the end of its post-Brexit transition period, which is to say January 1, 2021 will be the start of a whole new phase in the life of the United Kingdom.
Will this matter in a world hit by a pandemic? More to the point, does Brexit matter at a moment in history when the coronavirus has made it impossible for the EU to allow the free and unrestricted movement of people across internally-abolished borders?
Even Remainers might admit that for all its advantages (and bracing rhetoric about unity), the pandemic has revealed the EU’s fatal flaw: a striking and unprepossessing lack of solidarity. Perhaps it might be unrealistic to expect rich, well-run countries to stump up to help poorer, more chaotic members of the European fraternity, but isn’t that what a ‘union’ is supposed to be? Isn’t that what it would really mean if the EU really did work like a family of nations rather than a single market, an economic project?
Indeed, the pandemic has revealed the EU’s real sensibilities. Rather than pool resources to support the EU member-states most badly affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the EU has remained full of platitudes (and hot air) but offered little real succour and certainly not in a timely fashion.
There has also been little coordination on one of the most pressing issues of all as the world waits for a vaccine: how to coordinate re-opening and lockdowns so as to prevent the coronavirus from travelling across the borders of EU countries, causing a second massive wave of infection.
Finally, of course, there were the remarkable events of May 5. The German constitutional court criticised the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) approval in 2018 of the European Central Bank’s (ECB) bond-purchasing programme as “untenable from a methodological perspective”. It was the first challenge of its kind in the history of the EU. For all that the EU’s top court almost immediately sought to reassert its legal superiority over the member states’ national tribunals, EU policymakers have been privately expressing alarm at developments. After all, EU members such as Poland and Hungary are already clashing with EU decisions and they could now use the precedent set in Germany to continue to defy the European court’s judgments.
In some ways, when Britain formally exits the EU, it may be leaving a shell of the 27-member union.