Why the Brexit trade team has hired a New Zealander as lead negotiator

A week in which five somewhat underwhelming position papers were published by the Department for Exiting the European Union was rounded off by a piece of somewhat better news.

Next week, Crawford Falconer, a New Zealander, will take up his position as chief trade negotiation adviser at the Department for International Trade.

Mr Falconer brings with him some valuable expertise which our EU membership has more or less rendered extinct in the UK – 25 years of trade experience. He has represented New Zealand at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and held various posts in foreign and trade affairs in his home country.

As far back as 1973, we surrendered our right to negotiate our own trade deals and thus no longer had need of people with the necessary skills. Given that the freedom to strike our own trade deals was one of the most frequently-mentioned arguments in favour of Brexit, it is therefore encouraging that Liam Fox’s department has made this appointment.

For one thing, it shows that the UK Government is serious about developing an independent trade policy. More importantly, however, it shows  that a recognition has dawned at least in one Government department that trade deals are complex, requiring specialist skills. This is in contrast to some announcements – indeed, to some of the Position papers – which give the impression that obtaining a smooth Brexit will be a piece of cake.

It won’t be. For over 44 years, our country has been progressively denuded of many attributes if a fully-functioning sovereign nation. Many of us were profoundly unhappy about this and hence the energy and vigour of the Brexit campaign in last year’s referendum. We wanted our country back  – to take control once more and to end our subservience to foreign institutions.

The ramifications of that vote are beginning to reverberate through both Westminster and Whitehall. The buck will stop here – not in Brussels or Strasbourg! The EU can no longer be the scapegoat when something goes wrong.

Reclaiming our sovereignty requires not only a new mindset but a sharp learning curve for a new generation of civil servants. They are going to have to do things which have been sub-contracted out to Brussels for two generations. Not one UK Civil Servant still in employment has had any experience of negotiating a free trade deal on behalf of our country. Inevitably, therefore, expertise will have to be brought in from elsewhere to tide us over and the obvious places to look are those countries like New Zealand which share our Common Law legal system, our language and our outward-looking approach to trade. We can be grateful not only that there is an Anglophone world out there, but that our Commonwealth friends are prepared to renew and strengthen their ties with us after having been cast adrift so shamefully in 1973.

The more announcements we therefore hear of appointments like Mr Falconer, the more confident we can be that or government is really getting to grips with what it will mean to be a sovereign nation once more.

Photo by yellow book

Availability of goods: the latest government position paper

The third Government Brexit position paper was published on 21st August and covers the complex subject of the continuity in the availability of goods for the EU and the UK.

One of the main priorities of the Brexit negotiations is to ensure that trade between the UK and the EU continues with as little disruption as possible on Brexit day. The report identifies one particular issue which has hitherto received little attention:- what of goods that are in transit in some form or other when Independence Day dawns? To illustrate the point, suppose a customer in Germany or Poland orders an item from a UK company on 28th March 2019 and pays for it on line. On that day, we will still be an EU member state  and part of the Single Market. The UK-produced item will have been produced in compliance with EU standards. What will happen to this item if it arrives in Calais on 29th March 2019 or later? By this time, if there is no satisfactory deal, it could have to pass through an elaborate customs clearance process and if the item is to be used in the manufacture of something bigger, such as a component in a car or a washing machine, will it still be regarded as meeting the EU’s standards on compliance?

Unfortunately, having identified a very real problem, the position paper does not really go into any detail about how the government proposes to tackle it. No one could possibly argue with the first paragraph:-

Investors, businesses and citizens in the UK and across the EU need to be able to plan ahead with certainty. The UK wants to ensure a smooth and orderly exit that minimises disruption to citizens, consumers and businesses across Europe in terms of the availability of goods….

….but a first reading through of this paper left me none the wiser as to what the Government is proposing. The statistics about the volume of UK-EU trade in goods show why it is important to come to a deal on trade in goods. It is one thing to say, as per Paragraph 16 “The UK believes that all goods lawfully placed on the market before exit should continue to circulate freely, without additional requirements or restrictions, ” but quite another to explain what if anything, considering we become a Third Country as far as the EU is concerned on Brexit day,  will replace our Single Market access.

Essentially, we are faced with three options for trade with the EU in the immediate post-Brexit period:-

  • Change tack and seek to join EFTA so that the UK will remain within the European Economic Area – in other words, resurrect the Norway Option/Liechtenstein Compromise, albeit only as an interim position.
  • Revert to WTO rules, perhaps in conjunction with a zero tariff policy, as advocated recently in a paper by Professor Kevin Dowd, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs.
  • Seek a bespoke trade agreement. One paper published earlier this year by the Bruges Group has identified the main subjects on which agreement will need to be reached. The authors claim that if everything is handled competently on both sides, trade will continue to flow smoothly after Brexit.

While each of these three approaches have their supporters and detractors, the people whose opinions really matter are the Government ministers and Civil Servants who will be at the sharp end of negotiations. The biggest disappointment on reading this position paper is that it offered no clue as to which of these three options it is seeking to take. In particular, if it is the third, the EU will have to agree to a lot of things which so far it has shown little inclination towards.

Ireland – The Second Government Brexit position paper

No one wants to return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Even less does anyone, bar a few fanatics, want to return to the days of “the Troubles”. This much is obvious.

Settling the issues relating to what will be the UK’s only land border with the EU has been given a high priority by the EU too. Only yesterday, in response to the first UK government position paper (on customs), the  EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier,  named the Irish question as one of three important issues on which agreement would need to be reached before serious discussions on trade-related issues could begin.

So a mere 24 hours after the position paper on customs, another has appeared which offers us some insights into the Government’s thinking on Ireland.

The paper identifies four priorities:-

  1. Upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement in all its parts
  2. Maintaining the Common Travel Area and associated rights
  3. Avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods
  4. Aiming to preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, including on energy.

As far as the Good Friday Agreement is concerned, the paper points out that it was an agreement between the UK and the Irish Republic rather than the EU. Among other things, it affirmed “the permanent birthright of the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status: to identify themselves and be accepted as British or Irish or both, as they may so choose; to equal treatment irrespective of their choice; and to hold both British and Irish citizenship.”  The UK Government has every intention to preserve this arrangement after Brexit.

The Common Travel Area pre-dated either the UK or the Irish Republic joining the European project. Indeed, Irish citizens have enjoyed special rights in the UK for most of the period since 1922 – a reflection of the strong, historic links between the Irish people and those in the UK. The Common Travel Area in its present form also involves the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which were never part of the EU. It allowed freedom of movement throughout the area and  allows Irish citizens to vote in the UK’s locla and Parliamentary elections.

Given that the Common Travel Area arrangements have been administered by the governments of the parties involved rather than by the EU and that the EU has been happy about this, the document maintains that there should be no reason why this situation should not continue after Brexit.

The “hard border” issue is likely to prove the most complex. In 1972, the paper informs us, there were 17 HM Customs and Excise boundary posts at the major road crossing points along the 310-mile long Northern Ireland land border and more than 200 other crossings not approved for vehicular traffic.  These have all disappeared but this is the number of potential crossing points which would need to be reinstated if a “hard border” were imposed. No wonder all sides are keen to avoid such a scenario.  Some farmers’ land straddles the border.

The paper recognises that it cannot propose a unilateral solution to the problem of maintaining the free flow of trade across the Irish border. It does, however, point to instances “where the EU has set aside the normal regulations and codes set out in EU law in order to recognise the circumstances of certain border areas.” – including the border between the Greek and Turkish sectors in Cyprus and the Croatia/Bosnia border. At the same time, the paper acknowledges that resolution of this issue “cannot be based on a precedent”. This makes sense for, after all, the EU’s aspiration is for Cyprus to be reunited with both parts of the island in the EU and likewise, Bosnia is a candidate country, even though it is unlikely to be joining the EU any time soon. By contrast, the UK is going in the opposite direction.

The paper also refers to the position paper on customs. Obviously, on the one hand the peoples of the UK and Ireland have an unique relationship, but the Irish Republic is an EU member state and part of the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union.  A solution for customs issues at the Irish border is inevitably going to be linked to wider customs and trade issues which will need to be addressed as part of the Brexit process, but as anyone who has visited the Irish Republic will be very aware, a substantial percentage of the products on sale in supermarkets in Irish towns and cities originate in the UK. It is therefore unsurprising that Irish officials are very concerned about the damage their economy may suffer if no trade and customs agreement is in place on Brexit. Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, expressed a wish that the UK would not actually leave the EU, or if it did, that we would remain within the EEA. Dan Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to the UK, by contrast, hoped that we would remain inside the Customs Union.

So the  progress towards the “innovative and untested” customs proposals and the possibility of a temporary customs arrangement discussed in the earlier position paper will be followed particularly closely in Dublin. Given that even if the UK government  changes tack and opts for ongoing membership of the EEA, agricultural goods would be outside this arrangement, it will take a lot of hard bargaining on both sides if all goods and services are to enjoy even relatively free access across the Irish border, whatever form that border may take. If it sticks to the proposals outlined in the position paper, there will be a number of areas where agreements on mutual recognition of conformity would have to be signed and time is short.

The North-South East-West cooperation may be a new term to many of us. North-South simply means the Belfast-Dublin axis and East-West refers to the relationship between London and Dublin. In many ways, the various fora such as the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference which have been set up under this label are the outworking of the recognition of the  close historic and geographical links between the UK and the Irish Republic. The cooperation has manifested itself in some specific sectors such as energy and the position paper emphasizes the need for the cooperation to continue after Brexit.

With this in mind, the concluding statement that a formal agreement between the EU and the UK on the Irish border issue early in the Brexit negotiations would not mean the end of any dialogue between the UK and the Irish government makes perfect sense. There will be a number of bilateral issues to resolve which do not directly involve the EU as a whole.

As with the position paper on customs, the abiding impression left by this document is that it has identified the issues which need a resolution without offering too much detail as to how they are to be resolved. Unlike the customs paper, however, where failure to reach an agreement would be far more disastrous for the UK than for the EU as a whole, when it comes to Ireland, a crashing out of the EU with no agreement would probably hit them harder than us. The Irish government is well aware of this and we cannot but hope for their sakes as well as ours that it will not be WTO rules on March 30th.

 

Customs: What the Government position paper told us

Today, the Government published its first Brexit position paper, which covers future customs arrangements. It is a short document, only 16 pages long and intended to be a precursor to a White Paper on trade which is scheduled to appear in the autumn.

What does it tell us? Firstly, the Government has been talking to businesses concerned about a “cliff edge” situation on 29th March 2019 and is seeking to ensure that we will end up with  “the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods between the UK and the EU, and allows us to forge new trade relationships with our partners in Europe and around the world.”

The paper expresses enthusiasm for striking trade deals with “old friends and new allies” – in other words, the Commonwealth nations and the rapidly growing economies of Asia. We can only do this from outside the EU and particularly, outside the Customs Union. It was announced very early after Mrs May took office that we will be leaving the EU’s customs union – in many ways, this was a bit of a non-issue as it was hardly mentioned during the referendum campaign.

The paper recognises  the challenges of establishing a new relationship with the EU. As a short-term transitional measure, what is proposed is in effect a shadow customs union where by the EU will treat the UK as thought it was a member of the customs union. David Davis, interviewed on Radio 4 today, was adamant that the transitional period would end before the next General election – probably no more than two years – to be replaced by a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. This, the paper admits, will be an innovative but untested approach. It suggests two options:-

  • A highly streamlined customs arrangement between the UK and the EU, streamlining and simplifying requirements, leaving as few additional requirements on UK-EU trade as possible. This would aim to: continue some of the existing agreements between the UK and the EU; put in place new negotiated and unilateral facilitations to reduce and remove barriers to trade; and implement technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures.
  • A new customs partnership with the EU, aligning our approach to the customs border in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border. One potential approach would involve the UK mirroring the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world where their final destination is the EU.

There is, in theory, a third option – failure to reach an agreement (see Paragraph 53), but the paper insists that “this is not the Government’s preferred outcome to the negotiations, but it is essential that the UK is prepared for all possible outcomes of customs arrangements.” As for the first option – a high-tech solution, there are some doubts as to whether it really will create frictionless borders, especially as soon as March 2019. As one analyst has said, ” making sure there are no traffic jams in Dover will be more about the arts of management, politics and the law than technology.

The obvious concern on reading the paper through is that this paper is very much a UK wish list. The EU is under no obligation to say yes. What is a particular cause for concern is that its treaty-based structure may not allow it to treat us as an honorary member of its Customs Union.  It is likely that we will be able to devise a system allowing  goods from the EU a reasonably smooth passage through UK customs by March 2019, especially as the if the new customs declaration service using state-of-the-art technology is up and running by then. What is far from certain is that our exports to the EU will enjoy anything like a seamless passage through their customs.  The EU will have to change its customs procedures to adapt to the different  status of the UK on Brexit. Are they prepared to do this?

We will have to wait a while for a formal response. So far, the main comment from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is that no discussions on customs can proceed until sufficient progress is made on the UK’s exit bill, the Irish border and the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit. Guy Verhofstadt, representing the EU Parliament, was  very sceptical, dismissing talk of a shadow customs union and invisible borders as “fantasy”.

One also would like to know if the author(s) of this paper are sufficiently aware of the differences between a customs union and a customs clearance agreement.  The latter is essential, the former almost certainly not, even as an interim arrangement.

The CBI has nonetheless described the proposal as “encouraging”.  David Davis’ interview made it clear that his Department still has a few cards up his sleeve and that for tactical reasons, he was not prepared to give anything further away. What has been put into the public domain has shown that the Government is aware of the issues UK businesses will face but offers little detail on how they will be resolved.

Avoiding the cliff edge?

Brexit news has come thick and fast this past week. While we don’t see the need to comment on every twist and turn, some recent developments have been quite significant.

In particular, following reports of disagreements within Mrs May’s cabinet over how “hard” Brexit should be, we are now informed that the Cabinet is united over the need for a transitional deal pending full departure from the EU.  There has been considerable pressure from business leaders worried about the relatively short timescale to prepare for departing the EU. According to the Daily Mail, Mrs May told a group of senior figures from industry that she wanted to avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ exit from the EU.

The article also said that even David Davis, one of the ministers keenest to leave the EU as soon as possible, is reconciled to a transitional Brexit period lasting until 2022.

Of course, with 2022 is now the new date for the next General Election, this puts a great deal of pressure on the Government to make sure we’re through the transition period before voters go to the polls. A recent survey by YouGov studied the main reasons given by voters for supporting the two big parties in this year’s election. Among Tory voters, Brexit came top of the list with 21% citing it as their top concern. By contrast, Brexit (either supporting or opposing it) did not feature at all in the top 10 reasons why people voted Labour.  Achieving a successful Brexit looks like being essential for the Tories if they are to stand a chance of remaining in power next time round.

One big issue in many voters’ minds was immigration and it is possible from the snippets revealed by a government source that no attempt will be made to restrict migration from the EU during the transition period, although when the BBC reported on this topic, it merely used the term “might be” no restriction. If this is the case, it would confirm Mrs May’s statement earlier this week that whatever the transitional arrangement may be, it is not going to include remaining within the Single Market. If so, what will it include? A safer transitional option, the EEA/EFTA route, would enable us, via the Liechtenstein Solution, to start imposing restrictions  far sooner.

Opposition to housing development in greenfield sites and in small towns is not going to go away either, particularly as an increasing number of people are starting to make the obvious link between housing shortages, concreting over the countryside and immigration. This will only add further pressure on the Tories.

However, if voters may be concerned that the government is kicking its migration target further down  the road, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee thinks otherwise, noting that Brexit will encourage firms to replace cheap labour with robots. In a sense, this is nothing more than the House of Lords playing catch-up. Almost two years ago, Andy Haldane of the Bank of England said that millions of jobs would be replaced by robots in the next twenty years. Even allowing for exaggeration and/or technology not developing as fast as suggested by the headline report, if we start to become a world leader in artificial intelligence, we will be struggling to find work for the current immigrants and with the exception of top professionals, certainly won’t want any more.

As the summer recess begins, the government will not have an easy job to  keep everyone happy, be it the many shades of opinion among leave voters, the Business community or even the Cabinet. We are still woefully thin on detail about even its transitional plans, but at least we have now been told that the important players are not only talking to one another but listening and attempting to find common ground that will keep most leave voters and business people on side. That still leaves a lot of concerns unaddressed, but for this small mercy we must be thankful.

Photo by williamcho

Look who’s talking!

A worthwhile article on rare.us gives us some insight into Brexit by asking “How could so many be furious over a female Doctor Who?”. The answer is, they’re not. The author says “I decided to go in search of this misogynistic outrage mob, only to find that it existed mostly in the imaginations of the people mocking it”. This largely confirms what we already know. No-one really cares. This is the fuel of today’s culture wars. Pre-emptive reaction to and satisfaction in the other’s side’s anticipated reaction.

This is interesting because it extends right across the issue spectrum. I’ve seen this exact dynamic mocking a cardboard cut-out Brexiteer who, as far as the wider populace is concerned, doesn’t exist save for a few high profile loonies they coalesce around and elevate to the status of typical. 

The dynamic creates a hyper self-congratulatory, smug and sanctimonious bubble, personified by Nick Cohen and Matthew Parris, spawning their own little bands of acolytes and fan boys on Twitter. Since other hacks lower down in the pecking order like to be in with the gang so as to appear clever, you get a groupthink unable to see outside the walls of its self-satisfaction. And then they wonder why they lost the referendum.

To a point it’s all fair game in that you have the Leave.EU idiots but they speak only to a sub-sect of what was the Ukip vote – which at last polling was far less than 52%. Closer to 6% one suspects. Still, there is enough low hanging fruit to go after.

As much as anything, though, it betrays the intellectual dishonesty of the remain crowd in that there are perfectly well reasoned arguments for Brexit, encompassing issues where even the FT hacks dare not tread. This all contributes to the mythos of Brexit where the silent leavers are left unrepresented and left patiently to endure the ongoing insults. The stereotype of the stupid Brexiteer is well deserved if Brexit ministers are anything to go by but the people very often show more wisdom than those they elect. The on-going condescension is a stark reminder of why it is necessary to put these people in their place.

There are plenty of leavers who are well aware that Brexit comes with trade-offs, who aren’t obsessed with immigration and recognise the need for a transition. Certainly everyone I campaigned with was aware Brexit would have economic consequences but made the decision on balance.  

In this respect, remainers have a little cult of their own going on, mocking the straw man Brexiteer but dishonestly refusing to engage on a more sophisticated level. Certainly the globalisation of regulation is an issue they will go to any lengths to avoid – not least because it is complex, but also because it opens up a debate about the world beyond Brussels which they cannot admit exists or their entire worldview starts to fall apart. The most we get is a nod from the FT to the “Brussels Effect” which they have only half understood – and as to the ecosystem of private authorities they wouldn’t know where to begin.

Over the next few months we can expect a torrent of gloating articles pointing out how many areas of governance will be locked into the existing régime. We are probably looking at being tied to EU tariff rates for a long time to come, and we will likely have to maintain the status quo in agriculture for ten years at least until we have taken full control of our customs régime. This is all besides the point. The fact is, the separation process will mean we have to keep a high level of conformity but this is about ending EU political integration and engineering the EU out of domestic decision making. Nobody was expecting anything to change overnight. They can gloat all they like, but outside the bubble, it is they who look foolish.