Richard North, 16/02/2020  

This government's preference for keeping us in the dark seems to be to the fore, once again, as an indignant Independent on Sunday complains that ministers are refusing to release "secret" studies which are believed to show that there is little gain to be made from trade deals with the United States and Asia.

The complaint arises after the paper tried to smoke out details of analyses into three trade deals carried out by the Department for International Trade (DIT), using freedom of information requests. But, in time honoured fashion, where information requests are always refused if they might yield anything of strategic value, the Department refused to open its books, claiming that its data were "work in progress".

This allows an exemption to be invoked, when "information clearly relates to the development of government policy", with the DIT asserting that: "Premature release of this analysis would be detrimental to the progress of future trade discussions once the UK has left the EU".

Never mind that these analyses were actually completed as long ago as 2017 – or that EU counterparts will undoubtedly have done their own evaluations into the potential benefits for the UK (not) of non-EU trade deals. Ministers are adamant that us mere plebs are not to be allowed information that will allow us properly to assess policy choices.

Taking up the cudgels on our behalf, Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, observes that: "The entire Brexit debate has been conducted in a great fog of obfuscation".

He is not wrong there, even if this is something of a statement of the bleedin' obvious. But Winters goes on to allege that the studies are being concealed because they would reveal that significant damage from new trade barriers with the Continent will far outweigh the gain from other deals - all on the basis that independent studies have indicated the current policy path will deliver a hit to the UK economy of anything between £70 and £130 billion in the long run.

With some justice, Winters argues that, "If the government thought it had a very strong case that these deals would be big and strong then they would publish these studies". He adds: "It's an indication that there's nothing there. To the extent that we have any analysis, it suggests that the benefits of these deals are very small".

If Winters is even close to the mark, then one might have thought that the government might be a little cautious about burning bridges with Brussels. However, both the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Telegraph are running a story which suggests that Johnson is taking an even more robust view of the coming trade talks.

This comes as Brussels seems to be ramping up its demands, insisting – if we are to believe what we are told – that they should retain control over UK tax rules and state subsidies, committing to dynamic alignment with the EU's standards.

Some senior Tories are said to have described such demands as "ridiculous". But the UK's official response to this is apparently to come from David Frost, Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator. He is to use a lecture to students and academics in Brussels tomorrow to say that these demands far outstrip terms the EU has struck with countries such as Canada, Japan and Korea.

Setting the scene, an anonymous source is enlisted to tell us that the UK government is "not asking for a special, bespoke or unique deal – just the same requirements that the EU has agreed with other like-minded countries".

On Monday, we are told, Frost plans to point out that, for example, the EU removed 99.5 percent of tariffs in its deal with Korea, 99 percent with Japan and 98.7 per cent with Canada – and they did not expect regulatory alignment with any of those countries.

While this may be the rhetoric being delivered, it is not strictly true as all three of these agreements pursue regulatory alignment and, as the Canadians are realising, unless their products conform to EU standards, they are simply not allowed in.

And then, the issue at large is the degree to which products are subject to border checks – not so much a problem with long distance sea traffic where there is plenty of opportunity to review the paperwork before the goods arrive, but extremely problematic with ro-ro traffic where the goods arrive only hours after loads have been notified.

Nevertheless, there is still a feel about these pronouncements that we are going through the pre-negotiation rituals, like prize boxers at the weigh-in, shaping up for the fight. And yet, the Mail on Sunday tells us that there is "concern" among some Member States that the negotiating avenues could be closed off even before the two sides sit down to talk in the first week of March.

The Sunday Telegraph, however, feels that this clash over a fundamental demand by the EU appears to increase the likelihood that trade negotiations could end without a deal at the end of this year.

One thing that is emerging from this, that hasn't taken a high profile in earlier stages of the talks, is the view that the Commission is taking a tougher line because of the UK's "geographic proximity to the EU". In terms of level playing field requirements, though, it is asserting that the EU-UK agreement "should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards".

Any such demand – which relies on conformity with international standards – would be very much in line with the limited number of comprehensive "new generation" trade deals that the EU has already agreed. In all of them to date, for instance, parties are required to adopt the provisions of – and agree to work to – the WTO's Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and the SPS Agreement.

We also see a uniform requirement, written into all of these treaties, to adopt the WP.29 UN regulations on motor vehicles.

Thus, while Johnson's negotiators are setting their stall out to resist any suggestion that the UK should be subjected to more stringent requirements than Korea, Japan, and Canada, there is a possibility they are protesting too much.

Considering that none of the trade deals so far agreed allow for any significant concessions on drugs, medical devices and chemicals – all major export interests for the UK – then some concessions will need to be made if our manufacturers are to have anything approaching frictionless access to the EU/EEA market.

What isn't being said with any clarity or emphasis though is that, whatever deal we do get (if any), there is going to be considerable disruption to UK trade. And we get some indication of this from the Irish Times which warns of precisely this.

A confidential memorandum to be circulated to Irish Ministers will tell them that even the best-case scenario for an agreement between the EU and UK would cause serious problems for businesses importing from, and exporting to, the UK. "Even an ambitious and deep agreement, if such were achievable in the short timeframe, will not be the status quo and will involve considerable disruption", it states.

Furthermore, Irish officials – like so many of us - express doubt any significant agreement can be concluded by the end of the year. Even now, there remains a possibility of no agreement at all – a scenario which could impact the Irish economy.

Just to confound Johnson, their report tells the Irish government that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, they will have to prepare for checks and controls at ports and airports, business readiness and possible disruption of the UK land bridge.

Yet, for all that, there is no commensurate clarity from the Johnson administration. Long on rhetoric and hyperbole, it remains wedded to mushroom management, treating the long-suffering public with contempt.

And, for this, there may be a price to pay. With China in lockdown, in the thrall of the coronavirus epidemic, with economic and political effect mounting, if the disease does spread to the UK, the effects could be equally drastic. "Public health", we are told, "relies on public trust". If nothing else, Johnson is fast using up that commodity – and he had precious little to start with.

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