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When I campaigned for Brexit, I was part of a small group that concentrated on trying to inject our liberal ideas into the debate and influencing the influencers. We did surprisingly well at getting some our language, arguments and concepts discussed. Sadly, in the grand scheme of things we failed as our main ideas on how to implement Brexit were rejected.
One mantra we repeated as much as we could was “Brexit is a process, not an event” which eventually went almost mainstream. It captures in a nutshell something critically important about Brexit, that it’s a complicated project that will take time to implement properly. That it’s an ongoing process. Forty-six years of political, legal and economic integration cannot be untangled overnight, but must be picked apart meticulously as the new partnership is formed. For a time, it seemed as if this was sinking in, but now the Conservatives have made a pledge that commits them to getting Brexit done quickly rather than properly or sensibly.
“We will not extend the implementation period beyond December 2020,” says the Tory party now.
The political purpose of this is obvious, it’s a promise made to take votes from the Brexit party. The problem is that unless the government is seeking a very minimal treaty that is essentially only marginally better than a no deal Brexit, this pledge must be broken. This isn’t enough time even to negotiate the “Canada style” deal that has been the main aim of many Brexiteers for some time. Such an agreement is still a severe downgrade on current arrangements, but it can’t be negotiated and ratified before December 2020.
Work on the EU-Canada deal, CETA, started in June 2007 and it has been applied provisionally since 21st September 2017. Negotiating free trade agreements is complicated and takes time. It is a common misconception that because the EU and UK start from a state of regulatory harmonisation that everything can be fast tracked. It’s not so simple. Replacing the single market and customs union with an entirely different, and more basic, system of trade is complicated and every aspect of it should be painstakingly negotiated. We’re building something new. We should expect a comprehensive and sustainable UK-EU agreement to take between 3-5 years to conclude.
We can only conclude that the aim now – in the light of the Tory pledge, is no longer to have a comprehensive deal with the EU, not even a Canada plus or even minus. It’s simply impossible to do it in the allotted time, especially as negotiations will probably not even start until March. Assuming that Boris intends to honour his manifesto commitment, then only a “bare bones” treaty will be in place when the transition period ends. This will amount only to a very basic agreement on tariffs and quotas and the economy will take a hit. When the reality of this sets in its likely to lead to political resistance and aggressive lobbying from British business and industry.
The only way of achieving a deal beyond the most basic would be to agree to all of the EU’s demands and sign where they tell us to. Not for nothing did Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former top diplomat, accuse Johnson of “diplomatic amateurism”. Rogers warned of a rising risk that the UK would leave the EU at the end of next year on WTO terms when the harshness of the EU’s position became clear.
Considering we’ve been in the EU for 46 years and many Brexiteers have dedicated decades to campaigning to get us out, this impatience is odd. We will already have left the EU, our membership will have expired, so there is no need to fret about remainers stopping Brexit. It’s true that the standstill transition period isn’t an ideal state of affairs but its infinitely preferable to rushing Brexit for a bare bones agreement that leads to immediate and long-lasting damage to the UK economy. This determination to rush things has also created a deluded trade policy. Even though the government hasn’t fully figured out what it wants from its agreement with the EU, and is seriously underestimating the complexity and difficulty of the upcoming negotiations, it is planning, according to the Tory manifesto, to simultaneously negotiate with multiple other countries, aiming “to have 80% of UK trade covered by free trade agreements within the next three years”.
This is as deluded and laughable as when the former Brexit Secretary David Davis said within two years “we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU. The new trade agreements will come into force at the point of exit, but they will be fully negotiated.” That was nonsense then and even more inexcusable now. Trade agreements take years to negotiate, but we honestly expect to negotiate and conclude multiple agreements within three years all while negotiating with the EU?
For a start, there’s the matter of capacity. We are building a trade policy and department from scratch having not had an independent, national trade policy for 46 years. Where are the staff coming from? The UK needs to dedicate most of its capacity and its best people to negotiating the most important trade agreement it will ever negotiate, with the EU. It can’t afford to send off teams to negotiate with many other countries unless it intends to just roll over and give in to all demands. Do we want wet behind the ears civil servants still learning about trade to be up against the veterans of the USA or Australia?
Then there’s the other problem of other potential trading partners wanting absolute clarity on the UK relationship with the EU before being willing to begin negotiations proper and deciding what they are willing to put on the table. They want to know what level of access to the single market they will have from the UK. There’s a world of difference between a market covering 500 million consumers to one covering only 66 million.
In an open letter to the Daily Telegraph, a group of 14 trade policy academics, think-tank specialists and industry advisers said Britain is in danger of signing up to poor-quality trade agreements that do not benefit the economy and will not command the support of the public after Brexit. This is absolutely the risk of trying to rush through trade deals and get Brexit done quickly rather than doing it well. The signatories recommended prioritising content over timing and this is a principle that should be applied to the whole Brexit process.
The whole country is fed up with the political rows of the last three years and the stasis caused by a hung parliament. But if the Conservative Party is able to secure a strong majority the parliamentary shenanigans will be shut down and the government can crack on implementing Brexit. It would have a whole parliament to negotiate and ratify a comprehensive and sustainable agreement with the EU that protects our economy while securing new freedoms. If something is worth doing, surely, it is worth doing right?