“A great deal is being overlooked in the dash to secure a shrivelled free trade agreement of the sort we were trying to get, unsuccessfully, as long ago as 1958”by David Hannay / August 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
Yet another of the prime minister’s bombastic, Brexit-related assurances, that there would be a UK/EU trade deal struck in July, has bitten the dust, like several before it. It always was a silly prediction, launched more to distract attention from the government’s decision not to request an extension of the current transitional period beyond the end of 2020. All it will do, now that the deadline has passed with no evident sign of progress in the negotiations, is to feed speculation that the UK will find itself without any trade deal at all at the year’s end—not a message which Britain’s hard-pressed businesses, nor consumers, employees and unions, will want to hear.
The paralysis which has characterised this phase of UK/EU negotiations since they began in February, a few weeks after Britain actually left the EU, shows few signs of shifting, as the two sides talk past each other and, on the British side at least, ideology triumphs over pragmatism and flexibility. “No” to any truly comprehensive agreement encompassing the whole range of our shared, or at least congruent, interests; “no” to a level playing field on regulation and state aids; “no” to anything but an all-or-nothing approach on fisheries.
Yet the UK’s intransigence during this deadlock is both unnecessary and unprincipled.
It is unnecessary because the Political Declaration to the Withdrawal Agreement which Boris Johnson struck with the EU last October provides a framework for our future external relationship which would allow all the bones of contention to be managed to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. It was the junking of that framework by the Johnson government within days of our leaving which has made so many issues much harder to handle. As our own parliamentary committees have reported, the EU side has stuck pretty closely to the terms of the Political Declaration; it is still there waiting to be used.
But the UK approach is unprincipled too, which destroys trust, without which negotiations are seldom, if ever, successfully concluded. Why so? Because the government not only agreed to the terms of the Political Declaration last October; but it put those terms to the electorate last December and won a substantial majority to carry them out; its overall Brexit approach won the endorsement of both Houses of Parliament, which enabled us to leave on 31st January. So it is no good bleating that the Political Declaration is not legally binding. Indeed it is not. But for a nation that used to boast that its word was its deed that is surely not an adequate explanation.
What will happen when negotiations resume in the autumn? Hard to say and hard to be optimistic that a deal will be struck in time to enter into force at the end of the transitional period. The sort of compromises that will need to be made will be difficult for both sides, but most particularly for the present British government, which has plenty of ideologues in its ranks and which appears still to remain at the mercy of its own pro-Leave hard-liners. And simply to assume that both sides will be so equally appalled by the prospect of a no-deal outcome that they will come together at the last moment would seem to be a triumph of hope over experience. That Trumpian “art of the deal” has already been tested to destruction since 2016 on several occasions.
It seems fashionable at the moment to speculate that there is not so much of a difference between leaving with the sort of a deal the government would like to have and leaving without a deal at all. That argument may be marginally more convincing than the government’s hope that any no-deal damage could be masked by damage to the economy resulting from Covid-19, but not very much so. Just think for a moment. Even in tariff terms, where many WTO rates are pretty low, there are plenty too—motor vehicles and food products spring to mind—where this is not the case and the damage both to trade and to inward investment is likely to be severe. The implications of no deal for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be more severe too. And then there are issues like the trade in services; and rules over data exchanges; and the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. How too about the cooperation over research and innovation which has brought such substantial benefits to our universities and research establishments in recent years? And the cooperation of our law enforcement agencies in the battle against a rising tide of international crime—cybercrime, terrorism, drugs, human trafficking, child pornography and much else besides? These are all hugely serious matters currently being overlooked in the dash to secure a shrivelled free trade agreement of the sort we were trying to get, unsuccessfully, as long ago as 1958.
We should certainly not overlook too the consequences of no deal, in daily acrimony and bad blood, for any chance of being able to work closely on foreign and security policy matters with our erstwhile partners in the EU. And yet the period ahead is one where Britain needs more friends abroad and not fewer, whether the US election results in a win for Trump or for Biden. In either case the European members of the Atlantic Alliance are going to need to work more closely and effectively together. In either case too the shaping of a new relationship with China, which blends firmness and cooperation over global issues like climate change, trade and the handling of pandemics, is something that Britain cannot do successfully on its own. We will need to work closely with countries which share our values and our interests—with the other European countries high on that list.
So looking here beneath Covid-19, a lot will be at stake this autumn.