Richard North, 14/02/2019  
 


One of the more prominent scare stories during the EU referendum campaign was the claim that, after Brexit, we would have to renegotiate all the existing EU trade deals with over 50 different countries.

At the time, I was suitably scornful about this claim, arguing that we could apply the "general presumption of continuity" in respect of the treaties and request of the parties that they continue to apply the provisions.

Continued participation would not be automatic and the consent of all parties would be required – including the EU where relevant. But the "continuity" process is well-established requiring formal notifications to be made, followed by straightforward administrative procedures.

The point I made at the time, therefore, was that third country treaties were manageable. For the most part, ensuring continuance was a relatively minor administrative task that could be resolved relatively simply. There was (or should have been) no question of any need for major renegotiations.

Latterly, there have been several reports on this issue, including a comprehensive study for the European Parliament, which looked at future trade relations between the EU and the UK. The 52-page report was published in March last year.

To a great extent, the findings confirm the essence of the argument I had made two years previously, in the March just before the referendum. However, it did make the distinction between the transition period and the future relationship.

During the transition period, it noted that the UK would still be bound by EU law in exactly the same way as any Member State. Although non-EU contracting parties could point out that their agreements no longer appeared to apply to the UK, as it was no longer an EU Member State, absolutely nothing would have changed for the export and trade relationships.

On that basis, all that would be needed was for the EU and the UK to confer with the third countries concerned, and to reach an agreement with them. This could be done by simple exchange of letters, whence all parties could continue to apply the trade agreements as before.

Post-transition was not quite as straightforward, as the legal position would be different. Not least, the UK would no longer be an EU Member State, and would not be able to claim that EU law continued to apply in its territory.

The crucial point, though, would be the UK's degree of disassociation from the EU's internal market. Substantial differences would enable third countries to exclude the UK from their EU-related trade deals. Thus, the report said, whether the UK can continue to benefit from EU free trade deals with third countries "will depend enormously on the future terms of EU-UK trade".

Had the UK decided to take up the Efta/EEA option, ensuring treaty continuity would probably have been relatively simple. Most of the third country relationships that we wished to keep up would have survived – long enough, at least, for us to negotiate new deals without any disruption.

At the other extreme, in a no-deal Brexit, the degree of formal disassociation from the EU's trade arrangements would be absolute. The general presumption of continuity would not apply and we would need to renegotiate 50-plus treaties.

Actually, it isn't even as "simple" as that. We have often pointed out that UK trade relations via the EU are not managed entirely through registered Free Trade Agreements. We also rely on a network of trade-related agreements which are not registered with the WTO and therefore do not qualify as FTAs.

Nonetheless, these are vital to the conduct of our trade and, when I last counted, we were the beneficiaries of 881 bilateral treaties between the EU and third countries, together with 259 multilateral agreements.

Now, with a no-deal Brexit beginning to look a real possibility, we need to be looking hard at these agreements. Even if we stick just to the FTAs, it seems we have something of a problem. According to The Sun, it appears that we have something like 70 FTAs that need renegotiation to cope with a no-deal, with the government promising to conclude 40 of them by Brexit day.

As it turns out though, the likely number that will be concluded is a mere six. Four have already been agreed: Switzerland – signed on Monday - Chile, an Eastern and Southern African block, and the Faroe Islands. Two more deals, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are "on track".

Fairly obviously, this relative lack of success is down to international trade secretary, Liam Fox – he who, at one time, boasted that: "The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history".

He made a similar sort of claim for the rest of the trade deals. In October 2017, during a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, he famously promised that the UK would easily be able to copy and paste all 40 of the EU's external trade deals "the second after midnight" on Brexit day.

"We're going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the European Union so we've got no disruption of trade", he told his audience, adding – to resounding cheers: "I hear people saying 'oh we won't have any [free trade agreements] before we leave'. Well believe me we'll have up to 40 ready for one second after midnight in March 2019".

All he has left now is to play down his failure, insisting that trade deals are "not a numbers game". The focus, he says, should be on the "proportion of trade we can maintain".

Unhelpfully, one of Fox's civil servants, speaking for him, "would not deny the leaked tally's grim prognosis". Instead, he pointed out that, in 2018, around 12 percent of UK trade took place under formal EU Free Trade Agreements. The Guardian then put the numbers together, recording that the concluded trade deals covered just £16 billion of the £117 billion relying on the trade deals.

Furthermore, when the impact of the additional non-FTA agreements is taken into account – on which we rely for much of our £45 billion exports to the US and our £22 billion to China – then the lack of continuity could prove devastating to our overall export effort. Agreements such as the comprehensive Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) on Conformity Assessment with the United States are every bit as important to our trading performance as the FTAs – many of which actually include such MRAs.

Directly confirming the essence of the European Parliament report cited earlier, Fox does at least say that the best way to avoid disruption is for parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. This, he says, which would maintain Britain's current trading relationships for the duration of the two-year transition deal, until alternative arrangements could be made.

What he doesn't say, but perhaps should, is that the situation makes a nonsense of the "ultra" claims about the WTO option. Clearly, if trading solely under WTO rules was all that it was made out to be, we wouldn't have Fox struggling to replace the EU trade deals before we drop out of the EU.

If we ever get so far as to suffer a no-deal Brexit, those who believe that WTO rules will sustain UK trade will at least be fully acquainted with their folly.






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