For the last six months or more, we have had to put up with an increasingly sterile and I would say dishonest debate about a Deal or No Deal exit from the EU. In the same way that the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement is dead, the term No Deal is a misnomer. The hysteria and dire warnings that accompany use of the term are disingenuous and used as cover by those hostile to the whole idea of Brexit.
In the same way that we have moved on from the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, so we have moved on from the idea of leaving without any arrangements in place to smooth the break. The main changes happened in the weeks leading up to 29th March, before the Prime Minister and Parliament panicked at the prospect of leaving without ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. During this period, both the UK and EU authorities agreed – on a reciprocal basis – to a broad spread of arrangements to facilitate trade, citizens’ rights, students, transport, security etc.
Rather than being fixated on trying to negotiate an overarching “deal”, building on the arrangements agreed before March 29th would seem to provide a much more flexible approach. This would allows for tailor-made arrangements that can be modified if necessary once operational, rather than having to re-open the whole Withdrawal Agreement in order to change a particular detail. The other great advantage of following this approach is that one can build on the practical solutions devised by HMRC and others to address issues raised by our departure. One addition that would provide extra reassurance to traders on both sides of the Channel – and on both sides of the border in Ireland – would be to utilise the GATT Article 24 to facilitate a continuation of the existing free trade arrangements.
Another great advantage of working this way is that it would leave the options open to develop the long-term relationship that best reflects the situation as it is, after the UK leaves, rather than trying to prejudge how it will be on the basis of how it is now. It has always seemed to me preferable to leave and then develop the future relationship without being tied to how things worked whilst we were members. It would also allow the UK to take back control of the £39 billion promised by Mrs May solely against a promise to negotiate a free trade agreement.
Having a multitude of small deals and agreed arrangements in place to govern our relationship with the EU would also not be without precedent. Switzerland, for example, is not part of the EU Customs Union or a full member of the Single Market but has a very close relationship with the EU governed by more than 200 individual agreements.
From a trade perspective, writing as an exporter, I have been very impressed by the work done by HMRC prior to 29th March in simplifying procedures and finding ways to keep trade flowing smoothly with the EU. This was complemented by the work done by freight forwarders and others to guarantee that shipped goods would flow smoothly. Due to the parliamentary rejection of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, the path provided by HMRC and others was the only exit that my company were able to prepare for – and is still the only one that we are prepared for.
From a business perspective, the problem for my company and most others is not leaving but is the endless uncertainty of when or if we are actually going to leave. An end to the uncertainly would mean that we can at last move on, invest and develop the business knowing how trade is going to be conducted.
Let us hope that we will stop being subjected to the sterile and meaningless Deal/No Deal debate by the Conservative leadership candidates. Instead I hope we start hearing from them constructive and practical proposals for taking forward the March agreements already in place to provide a comprehensive multi-deal arrangement that can be developed into permanent treaties once we actually Brexit.
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