An imperfect deal that is far better than no deal
A Christmas Eve deal many thought might never come. European and British negotiators have, after nine months, agreed on a mammoth free-trade deal covering a value of £660 billion ($894.76 billion).
“The clock is no longer ticking,” declared Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator who has labored for four years on these deals, and waded through all the psychodramas and bitter rows. It was too big a negotiation to fail, and in the end no leader wanted to be blamed for seeing it crash.
It was just days before the existing arrangements would expire and Britain would have no trading arrangements with its neighbors and largest trade partner, the EU. The UK will be outside the EU’s single market and customs union. It represents the first time the EU has ever agreed a zero tariffs, zero quota deal with any country outside the single market.
Leaders can bask in relief and a degree of triumph in securing a deal that should get final approval from EU states and the European and British parliaments before warming the vocal chords to sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve.
In the southeast corner of England, a taster of the impending chaos may have sharpened leaders’ minds and pushed them the few extra centimeters that were required. The price of no deal, according to official figures, could have shrunk the UK’s national income by as much as 2 percent, along with considerable job losses.
Lockdown is dismal enough, but being stuck inside a lorry for days on the side of an English motorway in mid-winter over the festive season plumbs new depths of misery. Over 4,000 lorries makes for quite some tailback outside Dover, the port that handles 69 percent of all goods movement between Britain and the EU.
Once again, the community spirit of 2020 was on full show as various community groups delivered food and drinks to stranded drivers. French authorities also dispatched 1,000 meals; they were backed by the army, which assisted in carrying out coronavirus tests.
All of this was a result of the new variant of COVID-19 that struck southern England and is 70 percent more transmissible than the original virus. Britain overnight became a quasi-modern-day leper colony, with countries banning all travel and France closing its borders. Getting a deal done seemed ever-more vital.
When Brits sit down after Christmas to mop up their cold turkey and other seasonal fare, what will they discover in this deal? A similar form of lockdown may be required to allow time for European and British legislators to plough through the 1,246-page deal and its 800 pages of annexes and footnotes.
Gone are the days of Britain trying to retain membership of the single market without adhering to its rules, of talk of having cakes and eating them.
The British Parliament gets to vote on the deal on Dec. 30, and with the opposition Labour Party backing it, it should pass. EU leaders are likely to have a specially arranged video summit with the European Parliament, voting to approve it in principle but only voting on the full deal in January.
Eventually the compromises had to start rolling out of the innermost lockers they had been sequestered. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted that on fishing, both sides had conceded from their opening positions. The UK’s current share of its fish is about half, but this will now rise to around two-thirds for the next five and a half years, when annual quotas will be negotiated. The EU agreed to allow British-made cars in, despite them consisting of many parts from countries such as Japan.
Make no mistake, the deal is very much a hard Brexit, not a soft one. Gone are the days of Britain trying to retain membership of the single market without adhering to its rules, of talk of having cakes and eating them.
Crucially, the deal does provide for zero tariffs and zero quotas on all goods that “comply with the appropriate rules of origin.” To qualify, at least 60 percent of any good’s value must be of British or EU origin. This means they have agreed full bilateral cumulation between the UK and EU, allowing EU inputs and processing to be counted as UK input in British products exported to the bloc, and vice versa.
This does not mean, contrary to Johnson’s claims, that “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade,” that it is barrier-free, frictionless trade. Exporters will confront a sizeable mountain of extra bureaucracy and paperwork. Strangely for a government keen to cut red tape, loads of extra diplomats, customs officers and other bureaucrats will be required.
Many will lament that the deal covers only goods, not services. This matters for Britain as services make up 80 percent of its economy.
On the thorny issue of the “level playing field,” both sides have determined a minimum level of environmental, social and labor standards. If either party deviates significantly from these, the other may apply retaliatory tariffs, all subject to independent arbitration.
Brexiteers who crave sovereign independence will be content to see the end of any role for the European Court of Justice or EU laws in the UK — one of their most passionate concerns. Issues of dispute, not least over the fiercely debated level playing field, will be handled by independent third-party arbitration. Others, including the home secretary, attempted to present a frankly lame picture that somehow the UK will be safer outside the EU.
Remainers will accept it, their teeth grimly gritted, still seeing it as a state-scale exercise in self-harm. They bitterly point out the huge benefits that Britain has foregone for a thin deal that will see the country taking an economic hit. British citizens will no longer able to live, study and work freely in the EU, with visas needed for stays longer than 90 days. All of this allows the Brexiteers and those concerned with immigration in Britain to adopt UK-specific immigration procedures.
In the end, whatever side of all the Brexit fault lines you found yourself, the two parties must make the best of it. Imperfect yes, but far better than the complete fallout of no deal. One British Cabinet minister wrote of a new “special relationship,” a term thus far solely used for the US.
After all the rancor this may be some way off, but as an ambition it is well worth embracing. To do that, this deal must be implemented fairly and in a positive spirit, something not always in full view over the last four years.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech