It is one thing to regain sovereignty, it is another entirely to agree where to point itby Dmitry Grozoubinski / September 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
If you think the trade issues in the Brexit debate have been divisive thus far, I have some bad news for you: this is only the beginning.
Trade policy has always been important. It impacts everything from jobs to the fight against climate change. Yet historically trade attracted about as much attention from most of the general public as semi-professional curling.
In most western countries, this apathy can be explained by a broad bipartisan agreement on fundamental trade questions. The major parties everywhere generally agreed that inching toward greater openness was good, provided you took it slowly and didn’t stick it to any industry with a lobby group capable of cutting and airing a powerful ad on primetime television.
The UK public was even further removed from the fray. The European Commission had the lead on most trade issues, thus conveniently shouldering the blame for the downsides of any hard choices.
Brexit changed all that. If you time warped to a 2014 World Trade Organisation General Council Meeting to tell them the politics of a G7 country was about to grind to a paralytic halt for three years over questions of customs paperwork, animal health regulations and the finer points of GATT XXIV… you’d be politely asked to leave because the WTO doesn’t give the floor to private citizens. But I think you get my point.
The UK is divided and tempers are flaring. However, what’s perhaps most worrying is that, on trade at least, the truly divisive policy debates haven’t actually started yet.
To date, the two sides have feuded over whether regaining independent sovereignty over trade policy is worth the disruption involved in attaining it. As part of the EU single market and customs union, the UK traded protectionism and full autonomy over a range of trade policy decisions for unprecedentedly open and simplified access to its neighbour’s markets. Any move toward regaining autonomy, from the most gradual (a customs union plus an approach partially modeled on Norway) to the most extreme (an exit on WTO terms alone), reduces that access.
The UK’s modern economy was built in an environment which included such access, so its removal risks disruption in the short term. Potentially a lot of it. Yet it’s only a foreshadowing of the difficult choices to come.
It is one thing…