Let’s gloss over it taking 99.7% of the 4 ½ years since the referendum to achieve what Liam Fox MP, International Trade Secretary called “The easiest deal in history”. Well, we all get over-enthusiastic sometimes.
In the face of widespread skepticism (including this blog), the UK now has a trade agreement with the EU that PM Boris Johnson has described as “the best deal we can have…that will stand the most ruthless scrutiny”. The Commons vote to endorse the “EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement” was a decisive 521 to 73—a whopping 448 majority. So, is that it, all done & dusted?. Errmm…no.
This deal struck on Christmas Eve does look good, compared to no deal. It avoids tariffs in either direction on goods, despite the UK leaving the Common Market. But it is only ‘good’ in the same way that falling out of a ten-storey building is better than falling out of a twenty-storey building. Neither looks good, compared to taking the stairs or, better yet, staying warm and dry and off the street where you were. Since June 2016, we have been told such alternatives were no longer open to us, that a 51.9% Leave vote on a 72% turnout was “decisive”. The Scots, who voted a solid 62% for Remain, are still not buying this.
Brexiteers conveniently forget the 65% who confirmed membership back in 1975, when PM Harold Wilson declared “14 years of national argument are over”. Today, the UK parliament was recalled to put the final nail in that statement by approving the 1,200+ page agreement, though whether all members read it is doubtful. And partisan interpretations of such a hastily drafted document are likely to echo through the next year, and beyond. The devil will, as they say, be in the detail.
Because it was such a crucial Hobson’s Choice, Tories, including the evilly mislabelled European Research Group, plus most of Labour lined up behind it. Yet, given the dire alternative of no deal, why did some rebels join the SNP, Lib-Dems and all Irish parties who lined up to vote solidly against it?
It’s not just those affected badly by the outcome, such as fishermen are against it. A variety of informed people have described it as “A Thin Deal”. What they mean by that is that much British international interaction is not covered. While what we now have covers many essential points, there are a cluster critical points that will fuel debate for years. If you think you are sick of Brexit as a news item, just wait while the following are hashed over:
- Financial Services. Unlike goods, the UK has a financial trade surplus with the EU, none of which is covered, despite it being 50% of the UK’s £24bn trade surplus in services. The EU may play nice and simply continue current arrangements. But they may cut up rough in a disputes.
- Customs. The deal avoids tariffs but there will be more customs bureaucracy and paperwork. This is because during negotiations, the UK demanded sovereignty rather than ease of access. There are over 200 such places.
- Animal Products. There is no agreement to certify UK animal products (not just livestock and their welfare) meeting EU standards. This means the UK will, for example, find it more difficult to sell lamb into the EU than New Zealand does.
- Fish. Cod Wars will be with us for some time. In July 2018, Michael Gove said: “the UK will be in the driving seat in quota negotiations, once the UK leaves the EU”. Fishermen were hoping for control of at least 80% of the catch, once UK waters became sovereign and left the CFP. The deal signed continues CFP control for another five years, with UK share rising from 50% to 66% of the catch. Then we start negotiations all over again. As in the 1970s, fishermen’s interests were traded away to seal a deal.
- Northern Ireland NI may seem to have best of both worlds: it remains in the EU Common Market as well as within the UK. This was to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, which requires an open border with Eire. However, this means a new bureaucracy across Irish Sea as goods crossing could then freely enter the EU via Eire.
- No Erasmus. Since 1987, the popular Erasmus scheme sent 15,000 UK students to attend EU universities each year. A similar number of European students came here. It was not included in the deal and is now closed to UK students.
- “Hotel California” Syndrome. The UK government may peddle victory on the “Get Brexit Done” front. But (to quote The Eagles), though we can check out any time we like, we can never leave, because: a) The EU is our biggest trade partner, and b) the deal leaves many holes in that need filling. Accordingly, talks will continue via a Partnership Council that already has many working groups on myriad topics of mutual interest.
- Data, Travel, Security, etc. Although the agreement does cover some elements of such issues, there are many gaps to fill. For example, for data protection purposes, a further transition period of six months will enable the European Commission to complete assessment of the UK data protection laws.
- Quadrennial Contest? It may disturb you to know that this deal that was four years in the making will only last that long. All 1,200+ [ages, ad anything added in the interim will be reviewed in 4 years’ time. No wonder the Scots are sidling toward the door.
Though the above list makes no pretence at being comprehensive, you may wish to keep it by you to avoid being ambushed by the new of more negotiations, just when you thought it was all over. Looking forward and considering what we might do with all this hard-won sovereignty, you might see the discrepancy between their hope and reality displayed by Brexiteers and watch out for more such cognitive dissonance, as we turn our trade focus outside the EU:
“I think free trade would be relatively straightforward between the UK and America. If it’s legal to buy and sell a product in California, it should be legal to buy and sell it in Clacton.”
— Douglas Carswell, former Tory & UKIP (then unemployed) MP, Apr 2017: