One of the most pervasive fantasies of Brexit discourse is the idea that a Free Trade Agreement between the EU and UK would be a matter of unique simplicity.
The justification for this claim tends to be that since both sides start from the point of regulatory equivalence and harmonised tariff regimes, reaching agreement would be straightforward and quick. This is a falsehood but nonetheless remains a very easy trap to fall into. Today, Andrew Bridgen, Tory MP for North West Leicestershire became its latest victim, as he told Business Insider:
“A free trade deal can be sorted very, very quickly. It isn’t complicated is it? It’s the most straightforward trade deal you could ever do. The free trade deal we could do with the European Union will be the most straightforward ever in history. We’ve got full regulatory equivalence. It’s just a matter of what you want tariffs on. It could be done in an afternoon.”
We all know that the best and most effective lies are those which contain a grain of truth. Though the term ‘lie’ may not be entirely appropriate here, the principle is more or less the same. Bridgen’s assertion is a prediction, but it is one which will not and cannot come true. It is true that both sides start from the point of equivalent regulatory systems. This does not only mean adhering to the same set of rules. It also includes joint participation in regulatory agencies, the second of the important characteristics of regulatory alignment. But the trap lies just behind this truth.
To lay the groundwork here for a moment, it is important to remember two things. Firstly, the UK can only enter into FTA negotiations once it has acquired the status of a third country. The withdrawal process does not include scope for concluding an FTA and nor does it come with the necessary time frame. We begin negotiating an FTA after we have left in 2019, which means during the transition period. Secondly, the looming FTA between the UK and EU is the most unique in the history of international trade. It symbolises an unparalleled resetting of tightly knitted economic ties.
The way to begin disproving Bridgen’s claim is to sit back and think about the purpose of a UK-EU27 FTA. The answer is actually pretty simple. It would be to establish a difference from the terms of EU membership, just as it is with other trading partners. A third country UK would operate a symmetrical regulatory and tariff regime, enjoying the terms outlined by the transitional arrangements without the internal democratic representation. The present volume of trade between the EU and UK will make this painful, but equal treatment rules are fixed in place and upheld for a reason.
That the EU is protectionist is deliberate. It has created something worth having and preserving integrity is vital. If you want in, you bring obligations with you. No exceptions. If we refer to the EU as a ‘protectionist racket’, which it is, we need to remain consistent in our criticism and not chop and change this critique when it suits us. If we attempt this we will only be fooling ourselves and cheapening an already insufferable quality of debate. We must face up to the fact that in heading into negotiations with the EU we are swimming upstream in our fight for comparable market access.
Unlike ordinary FTAs, which seek to harmonise regulatory architecture, reduce tariffs and promote increased volume of bilateral trade and economic growth, this FTA would be somewhat different. Beyond tariff re-reduction, it would effectively seek to ensure that market access reached a plateau or compromise. It would start with equivalent trading terms but would evolve effectively a fight between efforts from the EU to forge a separation, and efforts from the UK to exploit the EU’s right of reservation on its services MFN clause built into CETA.
Examination of CETA’s scope on services reveals how unimpressive it really is. This is the kind of sticking point where politicians will begin to appreciate more strongly the benefits of Single Market membership. Canada can pursue even greater services access, but in return it must shed much of its rulemaking apparatus and adopt EU requirements. The UK won’t have the regulation adoption problem, it will have the opposite problem: we can meet their demands but the fight begins when Brussels realises it cannot overshare and be too generous. In trade, precedents matter.
The EU knows that its relationship with the UK is not the be-all and end-all of its trade policy. For them we represent a 15% chunk of total trade, for us the figure is approaching 50%. Brussels must therefore reassure remaining members that it is in their interests to stay part of the club. It can and will move on. This is where the bargaining power favours the EU, a vastly bigger market with a significant experience leverage on a panicked and disorganised Westminster. It is also why I decided the best way of leaving the EU was to depart with a guarantee on EEA membership.
I would also make mention here of the fact that regulatory equivalence does not and will not prevent border controls. As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, the main structural difference between an FTA and the Single Market is the nature of the surveillance and enforcement regime. In other words, where the checks come in. An FTA between the EU and a third country sees controls, whether they are customs checks or SPS checks (requiring physical intervention), reintroduced at the border. This is because the EU has no jurisdiction in the internal workings of a third country.
It cannot organise a behind the border approach to controls in the way that it can with its members. The level of checks will prove bothersome in FTA negotiations and our negotiators will want as soft a border as possible. By virtue of the location of the enforcement regime, FTAs can’t produce frictionless borders. This will have costs to supply chains and, in particular, UK based companies operating Just in Time production regimes. Parts required quickly will stumble their way through procedures not previously necessary. Arguments will break out here too as the UK seeks ways of easing the burden on its borders.
Bridgen’s absurd naivety went largely ignored by commentators today and this is a worrying sign. We are just months from the conclusion of the Article 50 period and still we have elected officials barely able to understand the basics. I can only despair when I look at the intellectual vacuums which grace both our major parties. Labour’s new policy announcement on the Customs Union is a whole other post in and of itself. And the sad part about all of this is that those of us who are well-informed and care are not able to take a lead on debate. We are firefighters, running around in circles correcting the ignorant headline-grabbers as we go.🔷
(This piece was first published on Oliver Norgrove's blog in February 2018.)