The UK faces years of negotiations that will make the recent turmoil seem like a walk in the park
A great many people in the UK want to see an end to the 3 plus years of wrangling that has followed the June 2016 referendum. This is understandable. What is not is the belief that leaving with out a deal would mean just that: the end of the long running saga, a return to normality, a chance for the government to tackle the issues that most concern people — the NHS, homelessness, the burgeoning need for food banks and the end to the austerity policies that caused it, the out-dated and over-priced commuter rail system, especially in the North.
I have news for those people: “No-deal” is not the end of the saga. It might be the end of series one, but there are several tension filled episodes that must follow.
Over 70 countries have free trade agreements (FTAs) with the EU. As members we benefit from these. Outside the EU, if we wish to continue trading with those countries on as favourable terms, we will have to negotiate new deals with each one. That is likely to take a long time and involve an enormous amount of civil service time and effort, as well as lobbying from affected sectors of the economy, from agriculture to manufacturing and from financial services to small business.
If it has taken this long to negotiate our way out of the EU, how much longer will it take to negotiate new deals with these, and other countries?
There is, too, an implied assumption that the UK does not need a “deal” with the EU. I must ask, if 70+ independent nations, some as geographically distant from the EU as Japan, Australia and South America, feel the need to establish an FTA with the EU, how is it possible that the UK, just twenty odd miles from its nearest EU member neighbour, doesn’t?
As controversial as the EU’s agreement with the MERCOSUR bloc of South American nations is, it has taken 19 years to negotiate. It still needs “the completion of internal legal procedures” by each party, which includes ratification by the EU Parliament.
One of the reasons it is controversial is because it appears to provide for the import of beef into the EU, a provision that has the potential to hurt beef producers in EU member states like Ireland, where that industry is already under intense pressure.
It is also feared that the production of beef for export from Brazil is fuelling the continuing destruction of the rainforest. This ought not to be the case because there is, within the agreement, a strongly worded commitment to sustainability. Of course, the agreement has yet to come into effect so maybe the recent spate of fires is an attempt to get as much forest cleared as possible before ratification.
Such aspects of this and other international trade agreements are the reason they take so long to negotiate. They have to respect other global international agreements such as International Labour Organisation conventions, the United Nations Environmental Programme, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and CITES.
If it is, as I suspect, the intention of the hard-line leavers — the ERG faction of the British Conservative Party and the leadership of the Brexit Party — to enter agreements that flout these international treaties, as they clearly are willing to do in the case of the Good Friday Agreement, then the UK faces the prospect of becoming a pariah state which no-one will deal with.
Either way, it is clear that the UK has ahead of it many years of negotiations that will make the recent turmoil seem like a walk in the park by comparison.
But there is a way to “get it over with”. Simply admit that the decision to leave was a terrible mistake, revoke Article 50 and stick with the deal we already have as members. There would be no need for lengthy negotiations with either the EU or the non-member nations with which the EU has FTAs. And government could get on with the business of making the lives of its citizens better.