After the end, the beginning. The long months of talks in Brussels have brought forth a draft withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union – all 585 pages of it. Amid the drama, the essential themes are clear. There will be a backstop agreement to the deal without an end date and with no ability for the UK to extricate ourselves without the consent of a third party. And there will be a grave threat to the Union.
Northern Ireland will find itself in a different regulatory regime to the rest of our country – to use the analogy that is being deployed about the “backstop within a backstop”, it will be in the deep end of the swimming pool while the rest of us are only paddling up to our knees. This represents gold dust for the Scottish Nationalists, who will seize on a different arrangement for one part of the country to demand a separate arrangement for Scotland.
We will be asked to sign up to all this, and hand over £39 thousand million, in exchange for a flimsy 15-page “political declaration” about the hoped-for trade relationship that would lie beyond this, should we ever be able to escape. That political declaration will be drafted to mean all things to all men, but will lead inexorably to the ultra-high alignment agreed at Chequers in July rather than the Canada-style free trade deal we should be aiming for. There will be so-called “non-regression clauses” to ensure the UK cannot out-compete the EU. This would scupper our hopes of being a global trading titan and bind us into EU manufacturing rules in perpetuity. As humiliations go, this would be complete and unendurable. The Prime Minister will have unerringly delivered a deal that delivers none of the benefits of leaving the EU and none of the benefits of remaining.
85 years ago, Churchill warned:
“All down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part of the advantages we have gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within… from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians… Nothing can save England if she will not save herself. If we lose faith in ourselves, in our capacity to guide and govern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our story is told.”
Such will be the legacy of Brexit if this deal goes through. The brave decision of the British people to leave the European Union, taken in the largest democratic vote in our history, will have been reduced in two years to a shameful and squalid surrender. This must be resisted at all costs, and I have little doubt that the House of Commons will indeed defeat the deal should matters go that far.
The burning question will then arise: what next?
A deal may still be salvageable, based around the broad and generous offer made by European Council President Donald Tusk in March. This would be an advanced free trade agreement, encompassing services and covering all sectors with zero tariffs and no quantitative limitations. Alongside this the UK would offer deep security cooperation and mutual recognition of practical issues from aviation regulations to driving licences. The EU’s offer, of course, was made to Great Britain and not the whole of the UK. The EU was not prepared to extend its offer to Northern Ireland – hence so much of the tortuous negotiation that has ensued.
But there is a way to deliver such an agreement, in the form of a free-standing treaty on trade facilitation between the UK and Ireland to be negotiated in parallel to the wider negotiations, as it surely could be. Such a treaty would deliver an invisible border that would satisfy WTO rules and could be referenced in the wider UK-EU free trade agreement. There would be no hard border and no need for a backstop beyond this.
This seems to me to represent a deal that could secure sufficient votes to satisfy Brussels and pass the House of Commons. In tandem with this, an immense national effort must be set in motion so that the UK Government and businesses prepare themselves day and night between now and 29th March next year for a no-deal scenario. Every moment that passes without such an effort is a moment wasted, and weakens our hand in securing the good Brexit deal that our country expects and deserves.
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What is going to happen if the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal fails to secure parliamentary support? Are we really facing a catastrophic “no deal” scenario? Very probably not. “No deal” – at least in its extreme form – is so obviously in nobody’s interest that it is very unlikely to happen.
It is much more probable that Brexit will go ahead on 29th March 2019 but that – pending the outcome of further negotiations – common sense and practicality will prevail. Most existing arrangements for trade and other forms of co-operation will continue substantially as they are for the time being. Albeit with some disruption, negotiations to find workable solutions for the future will continue.
Parliament and the UK generally – and the EU27 – will nevertheless have to make up their minds what they are aiming for. So far, the main ways ahead – both for Parliament and maybe for the electorate, if we have either a general election or even a second referendum, have been portrayed as a choice between reapplying to re-join the EU, accepting some variant of Chequers, or “crashing out”.
Not nearly enough has been heard recently of Canada+++. This could be a big mistake because – especially in the new situation in which we may well find ourselves – Canada+++ has very substantial advantages over other options.
First, it has always been the most obvious way of fulfilling the result of the EU referendum and all the promises about honouring its result that were made at the time, thus abiding by the critical democratic decision taken in the June 2016. This approach is very much in line with the policy laid out in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, before the Brexit negotiations got side-tracked into Chequers by the outcome of the 2017 General Election.
Secondly, with caveats about the Irish border discussed below. Canada+++ is an option which the EU27 have repeatedly offered to us – not least by Donald Tusk in March this year and by Michel Barnier again just recently. It is easy to see why the EU27 should favour this approach. If the UK is out of the Single Market and the Customs Union, the integrity of these crucial components of the EU structure would not be compromised or destabilised. This has always been a primary – and understandable – aim of the EU27 negotiators.
Thirdly, Canada+++ would supply Leavers with pretty well all that they thought they were voting for in 2016, while also providing Remainers with an outcome with which at least the more reasonable among them ought to be able to accept, especially if trade between the UK and the EU27 was on the widest possible free trade basis.
Trade would not be quite as frictionless as “free movement”, but pretty close to it. Supply chains would not be disrupted. It is worth bearing in mind that although 36% of the bought in components for the UK car industry come from within the EU, 21% arrive from outside, imported into the UK on WTO terms.
Fourthly, Canada+++ has a better chance than any of the alternatives of providing the UK with a stable long-term relationship with the EU, reducing differences of opinion and approach to Europe from being a constant source of friction and disharmony, distracting our MPs and many other people from addressing the many problems faced by the UK other than our relations with the EU27.
Fifthly, Canada+++ may provide us with a way of dealing with the Irish border issue. In a new negotiating environment, we would no longer be under the obligation to go along with the concessions made by the UK in December 2017. The UK could then agree unilaterally not to have a hard border, to implement electronic pre-clearance as soon as practical for larger companies, to provide local traders with exemptions, and to recognise that there might be some slippage to start with. If there are no tariffs to collect, this seems a small price to pay to overcome an otherwise intransigent issue.
The reason why Canada+++ has slipped down the agenda is because the Parliament elected in 2017 had no majority for any arrangements which left us outside the Single Market and the Customs Union. Now that everyone can see that trying to leave the EU while staying in either one or both of these constraints simply does not work, the advantages of a free trade deal with the UK outside both of them are increasingly obvious.
Of course, Canada+++ is not absolutely ideal from every point of view. Nothing ever is. But from the perspective of both the heavily divided Conservative and Labour parties, it now looks like a much better option than anything else on the horizon.
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The wide-ranging Free Trade Agreement with zero tariffs proposed by Donald Tusk in March foundered on the supposed problems of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In response, the Prime Minister proposed in her Chequers document to bind the UK to a “common rulebook” – really the EU’s rulebook – for goods in order, she said, to ensure continued frictionless trade between the EU and the UK.
This attracted little political support in the EU because it was seen as “cherry-picking” and even less in the UK for leaving us as permanent, non-voting rule-takers. The proposals were rejected on a technical level by the professional customs body, CLECAT, whose 19,000 members handle 80% of European customs transactions. They found that Chequers “would require five to ten years before it can be applied in practice… new/non-existing systems and procedures will potentially lead to more complications.”
Reports this week suggest that the Prime Minister has now gone even further to secure a deal at any cost. Her new “backstop” proposal is for an open-ended customs union. She has ruled out customs union membership 21 times, so this would represent a humiliating defeat. The UK would have submitted to everything the EU demanded, paying them over £40bn for the pleasure and completely ceding our international trade policy to Brussels in clear breach of the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments.
How has the Prime Minister got into this mess? Her motivation – a seamless border – is well founded, but her premise is that the only way to guarantee this is by some new, complicated customs arrangement. This is simply not true.
Firstly, only 4.9 per cent of Northern Ireland’s sales are with the Republic of Ireland, representing under 0.2 per cent of UK GDP. We should not, surely, give up our law-making capability over a wide area for the sake of that tiny fraction.
Secondly, there is already a border now – for tax, VAT, currency, excise duty and security – managed by technical and administrative procedures. These existing measures provide the foundation to maintain frictionless trade after Brexit. The Heads of HMRC and the Irish Revenue have confirmed this, saying that any additional requirements can be achieved without any new facilities at the border.
To see why, consider the range of simplifications to customs procedures and administrative obligations available under EU law. These are an ideal fit for much cross-border trade, characterised by regular, repetitive shipments – the same milk, from the same cows, from the same farm, in the same tankers, on the same roads, to the same destination. These obligations typically require only a one-off registration and, for regular trade, negligible costs of repetition. Companies already have to report all cross-border trade for VAT purposes, and the current system provides a framework for streamlining customs controls. Even small traders can – and currently do – take advantage of a voluntary registration to claim back VAT.
The agri-food sector accounts for just under half of all cross-border trade. Inspections can be necessary for these products but can, in practice, take place many miles from the physical border. I saw this myself when I visited Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, this week. The Border Inspection Point is 40km from the docks and deals with 30,000 shipments annually from all over the world, including from outside the Single Market and Customs Union. There, 97-98 per cent of chilled or frozen meat and fish are cleared without physical inspection. Only 2-3 per cent are physically checked, based on intelligence, and 90 per cent of those shipments are cleared well within an hour.
The simplest way to avoid the need for animal checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is by maintaining an all-island biosecurity zone for disease prevention and public health. I visited the facility where inspections already take place for livestock shipments from Great Britain at the port of Larne. There are clear lessons from Rotterdam as to how such checks can be managed efficiently and how intelligence can minimise the need for lengthy inspections.
The Prime Minister’s convoluted customs proposals are unnecessary. Existing technical and administrative processes can ensure that a frictionless border is maintained after Brexit, not as a temporary, cobbled-together “backstop” but as a durable, long-term arrangement which allows for the wide-ranging, zero-tariff trade agreement which Donald Tusk proposed. That, surely, is the optimal solution for all sides.
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