This afternoon (16 March) the House of Lords, will be debating two motions about Brexit. One “notes” the government’s planned approach to the negotiations with the EU. The other acknowledges the importance of Brexit, with an opposition amendment calling for strong Parliamentary scrutiny and consultation of the negotiations.
Until last week, this would have been expected to be a huge debate, a big row, major issues about the future of the UK being thrashed out, probably to be pushed to a vote – a big deal in the Lords – to challenge the government.
There have been, since the House last debated these issues, significant developments, notably the decision from the government not to participate in the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, something the Lords will be debating on Thursday.
But now, it feels like an irrelevant sideshow.
With the enormous threat of coronavirus, the emergency legislation to be unveiled soon, questions about how the NHS, our whole society and economy will cope, there’s precious little political time or space to talk about Brexit.
It is now clear that for at least many months, every government resource, every official and bit of funding, is going to have to go towards managing the impact of coronavirus.
There is no capacity to deal with the massive questions of Brexit.
Already, the two sides in the Brexit talks have agreed to take them online, through the use of videoconference and similar. Maybe that is practical, maybe it isn’t. Different experts have different views.
The question of the way forward, however, is about much more than the practicalities of negotiations.
It is about focusing on what is important and urgent.
It is about how we as a nation, the EU as an organisation, the world, needs to focus all attention and effort on a massive threat to the health and wellbeing of our societies.
To draw attention away from that for an inessential that can be delayed would be a dereliction of duty.
Also, to proceed with this major step – this dismantling of more than 40 years of close interrelationship on everything and the establishment of new UK rules on everything from aviation to trade, agricultural rules to workers’ rights – with the entire country distracted would be profoundly undemocratic and dangerous.
That means that the Brexit talks – the Brexit process – has to be put on hold.
Coronavirus is going to be a huge, pressing and fast-moving threat for at least the next 12 months – the minimum period that will be required, the experts say, to produce a vaccine.
That is the period for which the Brexit transition should be – for now at least – extended. Talks should be put on hold and resumed once there is the time, resources and political space for debate to proceed in a proper and orderly manner.
We’ve already postponed the local government elections in May. If we can’t manage to deliver basic democracy and have acknowledged that “business is usual” is not an option, then we need to do the same with Brexit.