If and when Mrs May, Mr Davis and the Department for (not) Exiting the European Union eventually sometime in the 2020s finalise a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the European Union (EU), it could potentially render the UK somewhat powerless against EU hegemony. Hardly then taking back any form of control, but rather giving the EU carte blanche to ‘turn the screws’ any time it wishes. This potentially painful situation arises as a consequence of how the Single Market, the EU and our own Government, including the Civil Service, functions.
As first stated in her Lancaster House speech 17th January 2017, Mrs May recklessly decided to leave the Single Market (and the wider European Economic Area, EEA), when the UK notionally leaves the EU on 29th March 2019; to become an EU temporary or permanent Vassal State. In place of membership of the Single Market she proposes an ambitious Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to provide a continuation of existing stable ‘frictionless’ trade with other Member States of the EU and avoid trade ‘falling off a cliff’. Trade deals with the EU are usually complex and slow to negotiate, taking several years. However, Mrs May and Mr Davis believe it can be negotiated and finalised in a matter of months, originally before we leave the EU, but now agreed with the EU to last from 30th March 2019 until 31st December 2020 (called by the EU the Transition Period and by Mrs May et al the ‘Implementation Period’).
The negotiating period for the FTA is very short and likely to be further truncated due to delays in fully agreeing Phase 1 conditions of the Article 50 negotiations for the Withdrawal Agreement incorporating conditions for the Transition Period. This is a recipe for concessions being made on the UK’s side to the EU (as Mrs May becomes more desperate for a deal) and for mistakes being made that only show up later when both parties start implementing the complex and wide-ranging FTA. Taking shortcuts and failing to adequately review or fully ‘bottom out’ issues and their implications are likely to be the order of the day.
The British negotiating side is further hampered through a general lack of motivation and expertise in intra-governmental negotiations in the Government, Parliament and the Civil Service. After kowtowing to the EU and its executive (the European Commission) for 43 years, our government has lost much of the acumen necessary to govern a sovereign country competently and responsibly. In any case the responsibility (‘competence’) for negotiating FTAs rests with the EU. Competence built up over many years is easily lost, just outsource to the EU and its gone, but much more difficult to reacquire especially in a short period. The Civil Service having increasingly become a rubber-stamping organisation for EU directives, and lacking understanding what they are inflicting, could prefer to remain under EU leadership; it makes for a quieter decision-free and responsibility-free life. This would lead them into more readily acquiescing to EU demands. This seems to be the case on defence and defence procurement where the plan appears to become increasingly closely integrated with the EU.
The EU negotiators, on top of their subjects, are running rings around our negotiators, who are repeatedly caving in to their demands and agenda. The EU’s negotiators are demonstrating a level of competence that is far superior to that of Mrs May, Mr Davis and Department for (not) Leaving the European Union. Their dedicated website and Notices to Stakeholders (under Brexit preparedness) are not replicated on this side of the Channel. A major consequence has been that the EU has effectively been in the lead all the time, setting the terms for the negotiations and setting demands far outside what they are reasonably entitled to. For example, Article 50 negotiations were originally intended to cover financial arrangements for a Member State leaving the EU, nothing more. Also they want to control UK fishing during the Transition Period through continuing the Common Fisheries Policy and afterwards by treating it as a common resource. The EU’s position is becoming more uncompromising slipping in further demands outside those strictly necessary for trade.
Another major weakness on the UK’s side is a lack of understanding of how the EU and the Single Market (or wider EEA) function. The aspirations of ‘frictionless’ trade through an FTA and a soft border on the isle of Ireland cannot be achieved by this route as repeatedly stated by the EU’s side. Leaving the Single Market (or wider EEA) on 31st December 2020 (when the Transition Period, for now, ends) makes the UK into a ‘third’ country, nominally outside EU control, and subject to the same treatment as any other ‘third’ country trading with the Single Market (or wider EEA). It is membership of the Single Market that delivers customs cooperation between Member States across a range of products and, therefore, frictionless internal trade (not membership of a customs union).
The EU’s approach (to many products) within the Single Market is outlined in principle in COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL AND THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT Enhancing the Implementation of the New Approach Directives , in more detail in the EU’s Guide to the implementation of directives based on the New Approach and the Global Approach and encapsulated in EU law in REGULATION (EC) No 765/2008 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 9 July 2008 setting out the requirements for accreditation and market surveillance relating to the marketing of products and repealing Regulation (EEC) No 339/93.
The EU’s Guide in describing the processes involved and their overall approach, also provides an indication of where future problems could occur and how out of touch with the reality of the EU Mrs May and Mr Davis are. Certainly at any time the EU can legally ‘turn up the screws’ where it wants to against any products. Mutual Recognition of Standards or an FTA will not make much, if any, difference, simply because the EU’s negotiators will make sure they don’t. They really don’t have much alternative since to cave-in to UK demands would go against their direction of travel which has been set for many years and set a precedent that could be exploited by other ‘third’ countries.
There is no guarantee that we will get to a Free Trade Agreement. The Transition Deal and Withdrawal Agreement are still far from finalised, and as the EU have stated many times ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. However sacrificing UK fishing, defence and agreeing to continue to adopt existing and future EU laws et al in the hope of one day achieving a free trade utopia is to be delusional and incompetent in the face of EU and Single Market reality. Mrs May could have pursued faster, safer and simpler approaches to leaving the EU; for example EFTA/EEA explained in some detail in Brexit Reset. Instead, short changing the British people, she chose the slowest, most risky and complex route, leading a government ill-equipped to rise to the challenge.