07 January 2021
Boris Pulls It Off!
That trade deal in numbers.
By Paul Branch
Brexit oven-ready deal done and dusted on Christmas Eve, and approved and signed by New Year’s Eve. Boris can do no wrong, his celestial ascent now guarantees him a significant entry in future history books, and he has every right to be smug about it all. As I never tire of writing in this little column: Congratulations Boris! – you done good.
For most of us I suppose the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation agreement document makes fascinating reading, first and foremost because it involves not two but three entities: the UK, the EU… and the European Atomic Energy Community, which came as something of a surprise. Then there’s its sheer physical size, running to some 1250 closely-typed pages and weighing in at 9lb 4oz. The effort that has gone into producing a fairly coherent and very comprehensive document must have been stupendous (never mind the amount of cutting and pasting, and the odd typo), so well done to our team of negotiators and legal drafters – those long hours in Whitehall and Brussels consuming all those take-away pizzas must seem so worthwhile now, making sure our sovereignty and legal system get returned to us intact after nearly 50 years, not to mention that every Conservative and/or ERG red line was never breached.
And well done too to the other side, but pity M Barnier and his EU team, negotiating mostly in English (notwithstanding the occasional “merde”, “mamma mia” or “donner und blitzen” that must have crept in every now and again), having to run new ideas and changes through their 27 remaining member states, and then having to run off multiple copies of the final version, in 27 different languages, for a meeting of their own Ambassadors on Christmas Day. That must be some Xerox machine they have at EU headquarters, and this really is the biggest Free Trade agreement ever.
They said it was impossible but Boris pulled it off in the nick of time, with a climax that could have been made in Hollywood. If you haven’t yet got around to reading the full document and are waiting instead for the movie, it may take a while. It looks like he was also right not to accept the offer of a delay while the pandemic remains centre stage and to force a decision, otherwise the nail biting would have continued.
No tariffs, no quotas as he promised, up to a point…. which is where the infamous level playing field measures kick in if one Party or the other tries to be a bit too clever and swaps sportsmanship for competitiveness. He promised no more subservience to the European Court of Justice, and again he’s managed to keep that out of the agreement… not to be confused of course with the European Court of Human Rights, that other legal irritant, in which we will continue to play our full part as it’s not in the EU structure.
Boris also promised lots of new business and employment opportunities arising from our newly-recovered sovereignty and freedom from the yoke of the EU, and yet again he’s spot on, at least on the jobs front. Those of you who have avidly devoured the agreement in full (as opposed to the rather anodyne 44-page summary) can’t fail to be enthused by the establishment of a partnership council overseeing a plethora of independent tribunals for dispute resolution and arbitration, specialist committees, panels of experts, working groups and sundry other gatherings (I counted up to only 23 and then gave in). These are required under the terms of the agreement to ensure we get along splendidly with our new-found European partners and friends, to help us all plan for the future, and to try to decide what to do if things go a bit awry in any part of the agreement. The implication is the imminent need for a lot of extra civil servants to implement these layers of bureaucracy, or maybe instead hire some consultants and help them learn on the job. Business lawyers will also have a field day helping their clients understand exactly what the details of the agreement mean for them. And for exports to individual European countries there will be new processes and forms which will require filling in by someone, along with the other new forms for trading with the rest of the world. Employment figures should certainly start picking up.
Tough luck though if you’re an exporter of uncooked meat – henceforth it will need to be chilled for travel, to -18C or somewhere near the storage temperature of the Pfizer vaccine. And if exporting seed potatoes is your speciality, sadly they’re strictly off the menu; but no problem unless you’re a Scot, so still no problem. Our fishermen will be able to increase their quota to up to 75% of the total catch in our sovereign waters over the next five years, and then there’s a review process laid down so that if they exceed that quota there could be tariff implications. Again it’s tougher on the Scots, but it just doesn’t seem to matter somehow. And the lucky lawyers win out again as theirs is one of the few professions whose UK qualifications will still be recognised, so they can carry on plying their trade across the EU advising on UK law. However, if you happen to be involved in offering the services which make up 80% of our economy, hang on in there as separate discussions have yet to conclude (or maybe even start) – we live in hope that Paris or Frankfurt will not gain the upper hand and usurp the City’s right to remain the financial centre of the universe.
There were a couple of nice surprises on travel, to make up for the loss of mobility and employment rights, in that your current EU health insurance card (EHIC) will continue to be valid until its expiry date, and then glory be we’ll all get a Global health card (GHIC) no less – let’s hope the rest of the world is aware of this to avoid any hiccup. Actually “global” is a bit of an exaggeration: it’s confined to those places where we already have reciprocal health insurance agreements, so the EU, Australia, New Zealand and a few others.
But what of the new border with Northern Ireland in our newly-recovered sovereign waters? The one that Boris and the NI Secretary Brandon Lewis still deny. The agreement confirms it really is there, because it has procedures and forms which don’t apply elsewhere in our kingdom as NI is regarded as remaining in the EU for customs purposes. Anyone in that vicinity still hankering after unification will spot a political opportunity to be explored, carefully and slowly but assiduously. So for Boris, self-proclaimed Minister for the Union, one of the next challenges is to stop the UK disintegrating into England and possibly Wales. Fortunately regarding Gibraltar we have a separate agreement with Spain which enables Spanish citizens to roam across the border at will, whereas Brits will need to show their passports to enter one of our own sovereign territories.
But then nobody expected a perfect deal, and it’s certainly better than nothing. Time to move on, Leavers and Remainers alike, and focus on making the best of it along with all the other issues which still need sorting in the world and at home.