Craig Mackinlay is an executive committee member of the European Research Group, and is MP for South Thanet. Andrea Jenkyns is Deputy Chairman of the ERG, and is MP for Morley & Outwood.
Oh well, it’s only been 1,652 days since referendum – longer than the entire duration of World War One. Whether that inordinate amount of time is properly due to the complications of unwinding a 46-year relationship with an ever-changing entity that moved from trading club to a fully-fledged supra-national state in being, or has been a reflection of the failure of statecraft and of obstructive behaviour by those who couldn’t accept a democratic result, we’ll leave to readers to decide.
The Prime Minister gave the powerful rallying cry to the electorate of the UK a little over a year ago to ‘Get Brexit Done’. That was endorsed by the voters, providing him with a historic 80 seat majority and we duly left the EU, as promised, on 31st January of this year. No prevarication, no extensions, no missed promises.
Since March, UK and EU negotiators had been locked in discussions over the terms of the new trading relationship that will apply after the end of the transitional period on 31st December, this coming Friday. Protracted deadlock ensued – caused by the EU’s refusal to discuss anything other than their own “red lines”, which amounted to keeping the UK within its permanent regulatory orbit.
This was finally broken when the Prime Minister announced his intention to withdraw from the talks, and remove any possibility of further timetable delay or transition extension. That clearly concentrated minds in Brussels; negotiations accelerated, and the outcome was the Christmas Eve Deal before us.
The instructions given to David Frost and the rest of the British negotiating team were clear: any agreement should ensure that the sovereignty of the United Kingdom was not compromised in any respect. No other outcome could be compatible with the result of the 2016 referendum.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, to give the deal its full title, does indeed respect the United Kingdom’s hard-won sovereignty. That is a thread that runs throughout the agreement, but is most particularly evident in two respects.
First, the Agreement declares that neither party shall be subject to the courts of the other, thereby excluding the jurisdiction in the UK of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the entity in which EU sovereignty resides. Not to be bound by the rulings of a foreign court has to be the singularly most powerful statement of sovereignty and independence.
Second, it provides that either party may terminate the agreement on one year’s notice. There is therefore not the assumptive permanency in the arrangement – unlike the position under EU membership, despite Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The Agreement, therefore, is a broad and comprehensive free trade agreement, and little more. It is, indeed, the most comprehensive trade deal ever done by the European Union. It provides for zero-tariff, zero-quota trade in goods, effectively giving the UK what many commentators said was impossible: access to the EU Single Market but also let us not forget, access by EU countries to ours but without EU membership, annual fee or supremacy of EU law.
In the short term, this provides reassurance to UK businesses that they can continue to sell into the EU market and they to ours without financial barriers and gives us the domestic freedom to move away from the ratcheting Acquis Communautaire as the EU moves on to whatever it wants to be.
It is in the longer term, however, that the most exciting opportunities will present themselves. Outside the constraints of the Customs Union, the UK can seek out new and lucrative markets. Already, free trade deals have been done with over 60 countries around the world, with more undoubtedly to come. For the first time in 46 years, the UK can become a new champion of international free trade with our seat resumed at the WTO.
The Agreement, in short, is a remarkable achievement. It is not without its flaws – full control over our fishing resources are delayed and there remain unanswered questions as to how the new arrangements will apply in practical terms to Northern Ireland under the unaltered Withdrawal Agreement. A strong and resolute government willing to exercise the country’s new freedoms will be able to resolve these issues.
This international treaty may be the final act in the UK’s tortuous departure from the European Union but is also the first step in a new, improved relationship with our continental neighbours, and with the wider world.