Stephen Booth: As the Brexit deadline nears, the UK is strong on fishing rights – but Frost indicates movement on state aid.

15 Oct

Stephen Booth: With four months left to get a Brexit deal, state aid is the major stumbling block for the UK and EU.

3 Sep

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

At this delicate stage, predictions of whether the Brexit negotiations will conclude with a trade agreement or not are bound to be no more than guesswork. With only four months until the end of the Brexit transition period, the chances of a UK-EU trade deal being ready for January 1, 2021 are in fifty-fifty territory.

The EU’s “parallelism” policy – blocking progress in one area as long as there isn’t progress elsewhere – means that Michel Barnier is refusing to discuss British proposals on fishing until the UK moves on other issues, including the most difficult of them all: the EU’s desire to establish a “level playing field” for state aid. It could be argued that Brussels’ insistence on solving the difficult issues first prevents rather than permits progress.

Ultimately, fishing is not likely to be the deal-breaker. The eight EU member states with significant fishing fleets will completely lose access to UK waters if there is no deal at all, so cutting a deal is clearly better than the default, even if it falls well short of the desire for “relative stability” for existing EU quotas.

At the start of the summer there were reasons for optimism about a deal. The EU had signalled a willingness to water down its most ambitious demands on fishing and state aid and the UK had acknowledged the EU’s concerns about the overall structure of the agreement.

However, the mood appears to have turned and the last negotiating round yielded very little, according to the readouts from both sides. This week Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, cited the “intransigent and frankly unrealistic attitude” of the UK for the lack of progress. Barnier yesterday gave a speech outlining the continued areas of disagreement. Equally, recent media reports suggest the UK is preparing the ground to walk away from the talks if the stalemate continues much longer.

State aid is the major stumbling block. The impasse would appear to be a bigger problem in theory than in practice. UK orthodoxy has seen past governments refrain from major interventions in the economy. According to the European Commission’s “State aid Scoreboard”, the UK spent state aid equivalent to 0.34 per cent of GDP in 2018, compared to an EU average of 0.76 per cent. Meanwhile, France spent 0.79 per cent, slightly above the EU average, and Germany spent a much larger per cent.

The perception in Brussels is that this UK Government is different. David McAllister, the German MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s Brexit committee and who is close to Angela Merkel, has said the “UK’s interest in subsidising sectors”, such as steel and cars, would have “direct consequences for EU industries and jobs if these goods have ‘duty-free, quota-free’ access to the single market”.

This precise fear of the UK turning to a historically continental strategy of promoting “national champions” may be wide of the mark. Nevertheless, it is clear that some members of this Government view industrial policy and strategic investment as important levers at its disposal.

In this area, the devil will be in the detail. In the post-Covid world, it is difficult to predict what will be required of the state and nimbleness may be critical. Therefore, it is understandable that the UK would not want to find itself bound permanently by treaty into the EU state-aid regime, much of which is “temporarily” suspended in any case due to the pressures of the crisis on national and regional governments.

Little headway appears likely until the UK sets out its blueprint for domestic state subsidy control, which is expected to be later this month. At a minimum, the UK will need to comply with WTO rules, but these fall far short of the requirements of the current EU regime.

WTO rules only apply to goods, while the EU rules apply to both goods and services. The EU rules are prescriptive in what and what is not permitted, whereas, in practice, WTO rules set a high threshold because complainant countries must demonstrate that disputed aid is harmful in its effect.

The EU appears to have walked back from its initial position – clearly unacceptable to the Government – that the UK should continue to be bound by EU state aid rules into the future, with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) having the final say in respect of enforcement. In contrast, the EU’s agreement with Canada simply uses the WTO model as a basis and expands it to services, but there are limited options for enforcement.

A possible compromise would be for the UK to implement domestic legislation, adopting some aspects of the status quo, enforced by an independent UK authority and subject to review by Parliament and the UK courts (not the ECJ). Subject to dispute settlement, set out in the UK-EU trade agreement, the EU (and the UK) would retain the right to adopt countermeasures, such as tariffs, against any state aid deemed to be trade-distorting.

Whether this would be acceptable to the EU remains to be seen. The essential objective from the UK’s perspective is to depart from the EU’s desire to micromanage the UK’s subsidy policy by treaty. However, the UK would need to accept the principle that the EU could deal with the consequences of UK subsidies with countermeasures such as retaliatory tariffs.

A bust up in September or October does not necessarily preclude a deal at the last minute. Weighed against these important, yet technocratic considerations, is the prospect of no agreement at all.

A trade agreement, with no tariffs on UK-EU trade and regulatory cooperation, would better enable the UK to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol in the light-touch way the Government has outlined.

Any disruption attributed to a no deal exit, however transient, would give Keir Starmer ammunition in his continued attack on Government competence. Against this, the Government is in a much stronger position than it was in the autumn of 2019 when renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement.

Failure would have economic and geopolitical consequences for the EU too. The UK may only be Germany’s seventh largest trade partner, but it ranks second in contributing to Germany’s trade surplus.

It is notable that Tom Tugendhat MP has on this site recently called for the UK to break with EU policy on Iran to adopt an approach closer to the United States. In the event of a breakdown in the trade relationship, Brussels should not be surprised to encounter a more muscularly independent UK in other fields.

We are now approaching the end game. The technical negotiations have probably achieved as much as they can at this stage. It will soon be up to the politicians on both sides of the table to make the big call about whether to make the deal or not.

Stephen Booth: The UK’s parallel trade negotiations are of unprecedented ambition

6 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Brexit is necessarily reshaping Britain’s trade relationship with the EU. Meanwhile, the UK is simultaneously trying to ensure continuity of, or build upon, existing trade agreements with non-EU countries, such as Japan, and reach entirely new deals with partners including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The UK also intends to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which currently includes 11 countries on the Pacific rim including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Predictably, the EU negotiations are set to go down to the wire. Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister all signs have pointed to a so-called “skinny” free trade agreement (FTA) or none at all. For this Government, Brexit is primarily about establishing sovereign independence, while the EU has sought to underline and assert its role as the dominant regulatory and economic power.

It is no wonder that politics has trumped economics throughout the Brexit process. The EU is a political endeavour pursued by economic means. The €750bn economic recovery plan agreed by EU leaders last month illustrates the extent to which the UK’s preference for confining deeper political and economic integration to the Eurozone faced an uphill struggle had it remained in the bloc. It is impossible to imagine any British government agreeing to such a dramatic expansion of the EU’s financial firepower or the precedent it has set for further moves towards a common EU fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a UK-EU deal being reached. The latest negotiating round appeared to mark a breakthrough on governance issues. David Frost’s statement welcomed the EU’s “more pragmatic approach” on the Court of Justice and suggested the UK was ready to consider the EU’s preference for one set of governance arrangements, rather than a suite of separate arrangements.

The remaining sticking points are fishing and state aid. Fishing is not significant in terms of GDP but is politically totemic in the UK and certain EU member states. Therefore, a deal must be left to the last minute. Establishing a “level-playing field” on state aid is proving to be the biggest substantive issue to resolve. The EU is moving away from its request for dynamic alignment and the issue now is what domestic regime the UK will propose.

Negotiations with the US appear to have got off to a good start. However, both sides accept that a deal cannot now be reached until after the US elections in November. Therefore, the most difficult areas, such as agriculture, will not be addressed until later in the year at the earliest.

The most pressing issue Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, discussed on her trip to Washington earlier this week is the removal of US retaliatory tariffs as part of the ongoing Airbus/Boeing dispute, which sits outside the FTA negotiations. The US has levied tariffs on whisky and further tariffs could be extended to gin and other products if the dispute is not resolved.

The prospect of delay with the US has made UK engagement with the Asia-Pacific countries all the more important and pushed accession to the CPTPP up the agenda. Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, is in London this week in an attempt to finalise talks on the UK-Japan FTA.

The Japan deal is an important stepping stone towards CPTPP accession, since Japan is the biggest economy within the agreement. The Japan negotiations are working to a condensed timetable because the parties are aiming to ensure a successor to the EU-Japan FTA is in place before the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021.

The time constraints mean that a UK-Japan deal will be largely modelled on the EU precedent. However, media reports have suggested Japan might be prepared to accelerate tariff cuts for British pork, and Japan is seeking the immediate elimination of car tariffs. The major opportunities for innovation in UK-Japan trade relations is on regulatory cooperation in the services and digital sectors. The FTA can provide the architecture but domestic regulators will need to work together to realise long-term gains.

Another reason why the CPTPP may become increasingly important is that Joe Biden has indicated that he might be prepared to (re-)join the CPTPP if his presidential bid is successful. President Trump pulled out of its previous iteration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, spearheaded by President Obama. However, this could be a slow process, since Biden’s campaign has also emphasised that his primary focus will be on domestic investment and he has previously suggested he would seek to renegotiate CPTPP if the US were to re-join.

Some have suggested that engaging with the US via the CPTPP rather than bilaterally would defuse some of the thorniest issues, such as agricultural standards on chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. However, the reality is that while the optics might be different, the UK will face many of the same substantive trade-offs whoever is president.

The CPTPP rulebook is much closer to the US approach – indeed the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) approach – to regulating agriculture than we have inherited from the EU. Blanket bans on agricultural imports, not supported by scientific evidence, will not only be viewed as a protectionist move by the US but potentially by other members of the CPTPP.

The question of agricultural liberalisation cannot be ducked for much longer. Equally, as we noted in the recent Policy Exchange paper, The art of the UK-US trade deal, the issue need not be as stark as some of the hyperbole has suggested. The starting points should be to promote consumer choice, while ensuring consumer safety. The UK already has the right, under WTO rules, to prohibit the import of unsafe food. Labelling, either via domestic legislation or voluntary certifications, can be used to inform consumers of food production methods.

The UK’s domestic and international policies must also work in tandem. UK tariff liberalisation can be phased in gradually, giving UK producers time to adjust to new trading conditions. This would reflect the gradual introduction of the UK’s Environmental Land Management scheme, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that agricultural liberalisation is an export opportunity for high quality UK products, particularly beef and lamb.

In today’s world, trade agreements do not merely set tariffs or regulate cross-border investment. For medium-sized powers in particular, they are important building blocks for wider political relationships and alliances. However, in order to unlock these relationships, the UK must be willing to live up to its rhetoric on free trade.