Richard North, 19/02/2020  

In Monday's speech from David Frost, what is turning out to be one of the key (as in contentious) parts is the claim that:
We are clear that we want the Canada-Free Trade Agreement-type relationship which the EU has so often said is on offer – even if the EU itself now seems to be experiencing some doubts about that unfortunately.
What has made it so contentious is that this is coupled with an outright rejection of the EU's demands for what are termed "level playing field" provisions. And this has, in short order, led Michel Barnier to declare that, because of Britain's "very particular proximity", it cannot be offered terms similar to those agreed with the Canadians. Without equivocation, the Canada model is off the agenda.

This has provoked a tart response from the No.10 press office, which refers to the slide presented by Barnier to the European Council (EU-27) on 15 December 2017 (pictured).

In a somewhat truculent tone, the press office remarks that, in 2017, "the EU showed on their own slide that a Canada type FTA was the only available relationship for the UK". Now, it complains, "they say it's not on offer after all", demanding of Barnier, "what's changed?".

What has changed, of course, is that the Johnson administration has overtly and emphatically rejected the level playing field conditions. A single slide used by Barnier for illustrative purposes can hardly be taken as the EU's definitive statement, locked in aspic for all time.

One of the crucial statements in this respect can be seen in the European Council Guidelines of 15 December 2017. These remain in force, with paragraph 7 making it clear that:
The Union takes note that the United Kingdom has stated its intention to no longer participate in the Customs Union and the Single Market after the end of the transition period, and the European Council will calibrate its approach as regards trade and economic cooperation in the light of this position so as to ensure a balance of rights and obligations, preserve a level playing field, avoid upsetting existing relations with other third countries…
That the UK should thus accept the level playing field provisions is taken as a given, an issue explored at length in a study published by the European Parliamentary Research Service in September 2018 under the title: "The future Partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom - Negotiating a framework for relations after Brexit".

This study concedes that the European Commission had concluded that "the only viable trade agreement model for the future relations between the EU and the UK would be of the kind negotiated with Canada or South Korea". However, it also refers to the guidelines produced by the European Council on 25 March 2018, mentioning that EU could reconsider its offer on a Canada-style relationship "should the UK's red lines evolve".

And sure enough, in the guidelines, we see references to a future relationship made conditional on positions stated by the UK. There is no ambiguity in the next statement, embedded in paragraph 6: "If these positions were to evolve, the Union will be prepared to reconsider its offer", it says. The European Parliament study was not exaggerating.

We then come to the revised text of the Political Declaration, published on 17 October 2019, as agreed by prime minister Johnson. And there we find in Part XIV, paragraph 77:
Given the Union and the United Kingdom's geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field. The precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship and the economic connectedness of the Parties. These commitments should prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages.
The paragraph continues:
To that end, the Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters.
In a continuation of this long passage, again there is no ambiguity. It states:
The Parties should in particular maintain a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition; commit to the principles of good governance in the area of taxation and to the curbing of harmful tax practices; and maintain environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards.
And just in case there was any doubt as to how this should be achieved, the paragraph concludes:
In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement. The future relationship should also promote adherence to and effective implementation of relevant internationally agreed principles and rules in these domains, including the Paris Agreement.
Returning to Frost's speech, however, we see his assertion that:
… to think that we might accept EU supervision on so called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing. That isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project.
It would appear, therefore, that Frost – and his political master – cannot have read properly the Political Declaration. Johnson has agreed to accept in the new treaty, "appropriate mechanisms" to ensure effective implementation domestically of the level playing field provisions.

Not in any conceivable way could it thus be asserted that the UK has not agreed at a political level to maintain level playing field provisions and nor it is conceivable that the EU could be excluded from some form of oversight role, expressed in terms of "appropriate mechanisms".

Nailing the point home, when Barnier was asked if Frost was right in his speech to say that agreeing to such alignment in a trade deal would be undemocratic, he retorted: "Truly not. It is a sovereign decision of the EU, it is a sovereign decision of the UK to co-operate ... That is what Boris Johnson wrote in the political declaration".

And indeed, the parties, according to the Political Declaration, "envisage comprehensive arrangements that will create a free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition".

One thus recalls the infamous statement of John Major when, after agreeing the Maastricht Treaty, he said that, now we've agreed it, "I suppose I'd better read it". Johnson, and his sidekick Frost, need to travel down the same path. And they had better talk to their own press office and tell them what has changed.

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