Britain has its back to the wall

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 22, 2020

UK supermarkets are warning of fruit and vegetable shortage   -  Reuters

From mishandling of the pandemic to the Brexit impasse, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is squarely responsible

How do you make a bad situation absolutely awful? Just ask British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who’s becoming master of the art. He’s wrestling with a fast-spreading “mutant” Covid-19 strain while simultaneously preparing for massive disruptions expected from Britain’s exit from the European Union in just over a week.

Johnson’s announcement that Britain’s battling a highly infectious Covid variant has not only panicked the public, but also its EU neighbours and a string of other nations, including India. The countries have effectively quarantined the UK (now nicknamed “Plague Island”), halting UK-origin flights, while France’s gone further, suspending freight links and creating supply-line chaos. So far, Britons look like having enough food for Christmas dinner but UK supermarkets are warning of fruit and vegetable shortages.

The British leader was already neck-deep in trouble from screeching U-turns and scandals in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Then, the man who’d said it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas gatherings did just that, imposing a draconian lockdown on heavily populated southeast England with only a few days’ notice, triggering charges of being an “utterly incompetent leader.”

Johnson explained the mutant N501Y virus was 70 per cent faster-spreading, though not more deadly, than the D614G variant which accounts for 80 per cent of infections globally (including India). But such is Johnson’s bottom-of-the-barrel credibility, people immediately questioned whether the mutation was a fabrication (sadly, it’s not) to justify the cancellation of Christmas gatherings.

Virologists in other countries asked whether the UK’s sharp infection rise in the past month was due more to Britons’ maskless shopping and partying. And the experts weren’t the only doubters with ex-Financial Times editor Lionel Barber tweeting it’s “clear now Johnson egged up the transmissibility of the new strain of the virus so much (to justify cancelling Christmas) he ended up spooking European neighbours.”

At a different level, news about the mutation hammered financial markets from New York to Mumbai. Maharashtra also swiftly slapped an 11 pm-to-6 pm curfew to stop the more contagious strain gaining hold. One diplomatic dilemma that may arise soon: What’s to be done about Johnson’s invitation to be chief Republic Day guest?

Stocking up

But it was France’s swift move to shut its borders to Britain that alarmed the entire UK and is being seen as a dry run for the expected post-Brexit mayhem. One friend dashed to the supermarket as soon as it opened to stockpile goods, then rushed to the chemist for essential medicines (she found herself in long queues). Finally, she packed her husband off (breaking quarantine rules) to collect his mother from her care home. Fearful of shortages, she threw in instructions to fill the petrol tank at every opportunity.

It’s important to remember the British take their Christmas holidays extremely seriously. The building where I worked in London was occupied mostly by one-room offices and one year by 3 pm on December 13, mind you, I was the only person still working and had to leave by the emergency exit as the front door was already shut.

The British Parliament, too, is already in recess and its MPs wouldn’t like to return to Westminster. And Johnson who’s got a strong autocratic streak also doesn’t really want them back.

Amidst all these global-scale ructions, the Brexit talks are staggering on, breaking one “final” deadline after another. The British have had four years to work out their exit terms. Johnson, in October last year, famously promised he had “an oven-ready deal”. He elaborated on this the next month saying: “We’ve just got to put it in at Gas Mark four, give it 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

The EU negotiators declared that last Sunday was the ultimate deadline for a deal in order for it to be ratified by member countries but the date’s now passed and the talks remain on a cliff-edge. The knottiest question relating to keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland appears to now have been resolved with Britain abandoning hardball threats to renege on its EU withdrawal treaty.

Then there’s fisheries, economically relatively unimportant but a political hot potato — or steamed haddock. The British believe they always got a raw deal under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and are demanding a bigger catch for British fishermen.

But that will mainly hurt French fishermen and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who needs their votes in upcoming presidential elections, isn’t biting at the British demands.

An even tougher-to-resolve issue: the EU says if it offers tariff-less entry, the UK must agree to maintain EU standards for its products. The British don’t want to be bound to EU rules while the EU’s insisting on a level-playing field.

And where will UK-EU disputes be settled? The EU says the right forum is the European Court of Justice but the British are baulking.

What the British exactly want from Brexit has never been entirely clear. Some Brexiteers appear to believe Britain must set its own sails if it’s to return to the globe-conquering days when Britannia ruled the waves. Others have misty-eyed notions of being an offshore free-trading state: a Singapore-in-Europe. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak outlined plans some years ago to have what he called “free ports,” in reality free-trade zones, to revive British manufacturing. The EU fears such plans might hurt its own industries.

Financial services

The one area where Britain still truly rules is as a financial services provider. But due to Brexit, many financial institutions are being forced to open larger offices in places like Frankfurt. For now, London will still hold its own as a financial centre but it will have to fight to keep that pre-eminence in coming years.

Let’s not forget Britain’s been part of the EU for over 40 years. Disentangling the links should have been done with the utmost care, especially in the British case. Last year, the EU was the final destination for 47 per cent of UK exports. Comparatively, only 4 per cent of all the EU’s exports were UK-bound.

Whatever is said for the EU, it’s turned Europe into the world’s largest free-trade zone.

Many Indian companies have a big stake in the negotiations. The Tatas have 60,000 staffers in Britain and if a deal isn’t done, their showpiece JLR could be badly hit by tariffs when it sells to Europe.

For now, it seems the good ship Britannia has a pandemic on board and it’s also heading for the rocks. Johnson’s still insisting the UK will be happy to trade on WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms if there’s no-deal. But as one pundit put it: “Right now, it’s looking more like WHO terms.”

Published on December 22, 2020

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