If there is one behaviour which has characterised Boris as Prime Minister, is the frequency of U-turns. The major one last year was giving in to the EU on Ireland so he could get a Withdrawal Agreement passed. This year they have mainly been on Covid and exams for schools but I am now wondering what his Brexit U-Turn could look like.
Current Brexit situation
Without an agreement on the terms of a trading relationship, we will have a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. This is not as serious as a no-deal Brexit would have been last year because now we have the Withdrawal Agreement. While we would not have trade agreements with the EU or any of the countries with whom we trade under EU’s trade agreements, we would also not be a rogue state reneging on our international obligations and agreements.
Pervious Brexit negotiations
The UK is acting like there can be a last-minute deal and the way to get there is brinksmanship. This was the case last year with the Withdrawal Agreement which the EU had already drafted. Talks were taken to the brink requiring either the EU to back down, the UK to back down or we go over the cliff edge. In this instance it was the UK that caved in, agreeing to a border in the Irish Sea and some commitment to EU’s level playing field rules in any future trade agreement. The EU had a draft we could sign, and Boris eventually signed it claiming victory and that the EU backed down.
Can the UK just cave-in again?
One path that many think likely is that Boris takes negotiations to the brink, then at the last-minute U-turns, agrees with the EU’s position, signs an agreement and claims victory.
But there is a serious problem with this idea. In contrast to the Withdrawal Agreement, there is nothing to agree to. There is no such draft of a trade agreement and there is not going to be one. The negotiations are the method by which the draft can be written, and these are not happening.
Why are talks making no progress?
The sticking point is the level playing field rules.
The UK signed up to them in principle in the political declaration of the Withdrawal Agreement but is now saying that they did not really mean it. The EU takes the declaration seriously and has based its negotiating position with it as a starting point.
Another way to think about this is that the UK and EU want to have very different types of agreement. The EU wants an overall governance structure into which all the detailed issues can be placed and resolved. The UK wants piecemeal agreements with much less overall governance or enforcement structure.
What deals are possible?
The table below lays out how I think the EU sees the options:
- Status quo is the one they want to negotiate. Zero tariffs, zero impediments to trade (such as regulatory and standards barriers) with a full level-playing field agreement.
- No Deal is another simple option on the table, without level-playing field agreement, and the UK operates as a 3rd party country under WTO rules.
- Canada-style agreement with some level-playing field provisions and some reduction in tariffs and barriers to trade is another option. The EU’s position is, given the geographical proximity of the UK, the level-playing field provisions would need to be more stringent that they are with Canada. The process of negotiating such a mixed deal is very complicated with many technical issues and perhaps even more complex political ones. For example, the Canada deal negotiations with the EU started in 2009 and are only recently being finally ratified. This timeframe is common for this type of deals as we saw with the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal which started in 2008, was agreed in 2015 and then Trump withdrew the US before it was implemented.
What does the UK appear to want?
The UK’s position appears to be zero tariff, zero impediments to trade and zero level-playing field.
(The ‘have cake and eat it’ option)
This is not something the EU is willing to entertain which is why the negotiations are stuck.
Which way will Boris jump?
If Boris is going to do another U-turn and agree to the EU’s framework then he needs to do it soon. This is not something that can be drafted and ratified in December. By all accounts Boris is not focusing on this issue and in this regard no-deal looks the most likely outcome.