6th December 2020
Today is a Sunday, one of the last Sundays of the year, and we still do not know if there will be a deal in place from 1st January 2021 for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
One hand, there are three big pointers to a deal being possible: both parties want a deal, it is in the best interests that there is a deal, and both sides are still talking.
And it is still only the first week of December and, even taking the impending public holidays into account, there is still time for a deal to be finalised and even ratified if minds are focused and there is goodwill among all those involved.
On the other hand, no amount of goodwill and focus will lead to a deal if the parties cannot agree on substantial issues.
There appears to be three issues of unresolved contention: fisheries, the ‘level playing field’ (that is, common and enforceable commercial and trade standards), and governance (that is, the ongoing enforceability) of the agreement.
Of these, it is difficult to believe that fisheries is really that significant – it is a relatively small commercial sector, and the parties have mutual interests in one side catching the fish and and selling the fish to the other.
A cynical person may think that the fisheries issue is only still prominent so as to provide domestic cover to the United Kingdom government against domestic political concern about the other two issues, which do go to post-Brexit sovereignty and control.
Fisheries policy as a red herring.
The trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union was supposed to be so easy.
The then-international trade secretary said in 2017:
“The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.”
“We are already beginning with zero tariffs, and we are already beginning at the point of maximal regulatory equivalence, as it is called. In other words, our rules and our laws are exactly the same.”
What he missed, of course, is that one main purpose of an agreement would be about what happens after day one: how is equivalence maintained and any divergence managed?
Points so obvious it is painful to realise that an international trade secretary did not realise this.
A Brexit secretary once boasted it would be easy to put in place a free trade area ten times bigger than the European Union.
Leaving aside the fact that such an area would be larger than the world’s economy, and so presumably would include the Clangers and other extraterrestrials, the United Kingdom has actually ended up with a free trade area smaller than the United Kingdom – with a trade barrier down the Irish sea.
It all seemed so easy, and it has it not turned out to be easy at all.
And this comes to the most basic problem with the United Kingdom’s approach to Brexit.
A complex problem has been treated as if it was a simple problem.
Any difficulty was to be met with chants of ‘Taking Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’.
The huge political and economic challenges of extracting the United Kingdom from forty-seven years of entangled and entwined law and policy was for the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove no more difficult than writing a punchy 1100-word column against a slightly flexible deadline.
This is what often happens with populism – which (as this blog has said before) can be described as the promotion of easy answers in exchange for electoral support.
And so we have ended up with a month to go, with no idea what will be the agreed substantial and enforceable terms of trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a real possibility that there will be no agreed terms of trade.
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