Deal or no deal? That is the question. It’s the same one we’ve been mulling over for four years now. It’s a failure of British and European foreign policy that after all that time we are still unsure if a deal will be reached despite there being only three months until the transition period ends. It is British business and British consumers that will pay the price of us leaving with an inadequate deal or no deal at all.
If there is no deal the UK will be like Wile E. Coyote when he obliviously runs off the end of the cliff, runs out of floor and plummets to the ground below. At least a deal will cushion the blow to a small extent, but we will still be plummeting from a cliff edge. A Free Trade Agreement is a relatively basic treaty, especially when compared to the highly integrated single market which enables frictionless trade between its members beyond the achievement of any other free trade area.
We are in the last round of negotiations and weeks away from knowing the outcome of years of arduous negotiations that have already seen off one UK prime minister. There have been some positive noises coming from Number 10 and from Brussels, but everything still hangs in the balance. Negotiations have been tense and hostile, with a lot of back biting and accusations. Lord Frost, the UK negotiator, and Michel Barnier, hope to enter the “tunnel”, where the final details will be hammered out.
Boris Johnson wants a deal. He knows that he needs that political win as he loses ground in the polls and public opinion on his handling of the pandemic steadily deteriorates. The prime minister will be barraged by detailed information about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit for the British economy. Michael Gove is a born again no deal alarmist, with The Times reporting that he is “terrified” of the prospect.
Gove is the minister in charge of no deal planning and is now pressuring Boris to secure an agreement, fearing the “double whammy” to the economy if the UK reverts to WTO rules for its trade with Europe and the rest of the world during a pandemic. Full blooded Brexiteer Gove has looked over the cliff edge and wisely stepped away.
Unfortunately for Britain, the type of deal now being negotiated is nothing but damage limitation at this point. The reality is slowly dawning on British business – a terrifyingly large proportion of which is teetering on the precipice of an abyss because of the pandemic – that the transition period really is about to end and the deal really is going to be thin gruel.
Gove has admitted that, deal or no deal, supply chains are about to be badly disrupted and January will see traffic jams at the ports. In the worst-case no-deal scenario, laid out by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last week, lorries would need passports to enter Kent. This is a quite bizarre act of national self harm. We now know how poorly prepared British industry is for the severe and sudden downgrade of our economic partnership that will come on January 1, 2021.
It is now an undeniable reality that the government’s Brexit approach means a huge increase in bureaucracy, mountains of paperwork for every import and export, higher costs and fewer opportunities for British manufactures and disadvantages for British services industries. British business has become the collateral damage of Brexit.
And so are we. The government’s Brexit represents a great loss of individual freedom when Britons can no longer move freely across the continent and work where they like. As individuals, we will also face far more red tape when it comes to travelling, working, relocating, accessing healthcare, travelling with pets or doing business in Europe. We will come to miss these freedoms that have been taken for granted.
This government and the last has always insisted that it simply wanted a “Canada-style” free trade agreement. Yet UK negotiators have sought all kinds of privileges and benefits that go beyond a mere free trade agreement. Seeking add-ons like mutual recognition of qualifications and regulations is just an attempt to conserve the benefits of the single market we helped to create but have now insisted on leaving.
Nonetheless, even though the deal we look set to reach will be basic and inadequate, a deal is still much better than no deal. No deal means a bomb in the British economy and a sledgehammer to the knees of British business. It means a collapse in relations with our allies and neighbours. A deal is something to build on, something a future government will no doubt seek to improve.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
As many in the British public and British industry begin howling in despair at government policy, now is the time to argue for a pivot to a more pragmatic, conciliatory and constructive approach to Brexit. A step towards that would be joining the European Free Trade Association, an intergovernmental organisation that promotes free trade between its members. The UK was a founding member and, on our return, it would become a significant trading bloc and market-based alternative to the EU.
On rejoining EFTA, we have several options to build a sustainable partnership and strong alliance with the EU. We could choose to improve the agreement we have and develop it into a framework for free trade and political cooperation. Or we could adapt an existing framework such as the European Economic Area. Ultimately, the objective is a trade relationship befitting of this vital economic relationship, one based on free trade, free people and economic security.
That’s an aim I hope to achieve and why I’ve helped to create a new campaign – EFTA4UK – to make Brexit work. We just want to something resembling the vision set out by the Vote Leave campaign, which promised we’d still be part of a free trade zone that stretched to the Russian border and certainly didn’t promise such a loss of individual freedoms and business strangling red tape.
Brexit means Brexit. But if this vapid phrase means anything, it also means that Brexit means whatever we want it to mean. It doesn’t have to mean the reckless route on which the current government seems determined to take us.