Editorial: To avoid more damage to the Highlands and Islands, Brexit must be delayed

West Highland Free Press editorial, 23.04.2020

Even before the coronavirus pandemic there was a very slim chance of a new trade and diplomatic deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union being completed by the last day of December, which is our official departure date.

Now that slim chance has withered away to no chance.

If Iochdar Saints cannot begin their defence of the Uist and Barra football league title and Kingussie of shinty’s Premier League, how on earth can the most complex set of political negotiations ever conducted between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe go ahead?

Last week a “Downing Street spokesman” briefed journalists that if the EU requested an extension to the talks, as has been hinted, it would be refused.

“We will not ask to extend the transition,” said the spokesman. “And, if the EU asks, we will say no.

Extending the transition would simply prolong the negotiations, prolong business uncertainty, and delay the moment of control of our borders.

It would also keep us bound by EU legislation at a point when we need legislative and economic flexibility to manage the UK response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

From the first word to the last, that is tripe.

Extending the transition would simply free all governments to devote their energies to defeating Covid-19.

Until the virus is beaten there can be no business certainty, other than the certainty of bankruptcy.

We already have control of our borders when we choose to exercise them. And as for being “bound” by some small parts of EU legislation, the pandemic has proved above all else that international co-operation rather than pigheaded nationalism is required to overcome it.

That horrifying combination of ignorance and zealotry could normally be ascribed to prime minister Boris Johnson’s crazed advisor Dominic Cummings, if Mr Cummings was not supposed to be in isolation having displayed coronavirus symptoms.

Perhaps he conducts briefings by Skype.

But it does not matter who said it. Boris Johnson was elected on a ticket to “get Brexit done”, and he has subsequently surrounded himself with a cabinet of ardent Brexiters.

The fact that hostility to the European Union was effectively the only qualification for membership of his government helps to explain its incompetent handling of the earlier stages of coronavirus, as well as its current refusal to allow a pandemic which is devastating the world to dilute its core electoral pledge.

They are determined to remove the UK from the EU no matter the cost, no matter the consequences, no matter the changing circumstances.

So although a two-year extension to the negotiation period is available, would not reverse the ultimate course of Brexit, and makes perfect sense to all other sides of the table, the Dr Strangeloves in Boris Johnson’s inner circle would sooner drive their country off a cliff than compromise.

The result would be catastrophic.

Without such a deal, we face the prospect of hurtling off the Brexit precipice early next year, at exactly the same time as our economy has been made by the virus weaker and more vulnerable than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

No British citizen of ordinary means would escape the consequences, but we would be especially badly hit here in the Highlands and Islands.

Our major exports to the continent such as smoked salmon, shellfish, Scotch beef and lamb and whisky would, without a deal, suddenly be hit by a variety of European tariffs.

Our fishermen would be left in a free-for-all without an agreed replacement of the Common Fisheries Policy. Our EU less-favoured areas subsidies will disappear overnight.

Our increased numbers of deprived citizens would suddenly cease to benefit from the European Social Fund.

We will have no access to any proposed European Union trillion-euro economic revival package.

This will all occur while we are still fragile and unsteady, if hopefully recovering, from the coronavirus. It would be an unnecessarily self-inflicted wound of historic proportions.

The two main opposition leaders in the House of Commons, Labour’s Keir Starmer and the SNP’s Ian Blackford, understand this. In fighting for a delay – not a cancellation, but a delay – of Brexit, they would attract the support of the majority of the population not only of Scotland but of the whole of the UK.

Most people are not zealots. Most people can recognise a full-blown crisis when they see one.

Most people would rather get out of the way of a tornado than walk straight into its centre.