Pulling the vote on its Withdrawal Agreement at the eleventh hour, the Government acknowledged what we already knew: the Backstop proposal is completely unacceptable and the Agreement stood no chance of winning the support of Parliament.
But rather than simply seeking “reassurances” on this issue – which, though a central objective, is but one of many – the Government needs to consider more boldly the possible alternative arrangements which might command Parliament’s support. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered just such an alternative in March: a wide-ranging, zero-tariff trade agreement.
That deal foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border, but existing techniques and processes can resolve this.
This view is endorsed by the professional customs body, CLECAT. They recommend we acknowledge the present state of customs technology, using procedures based on intelligence and risk management available in current EU law. These are currently used to manage the border which already exists – for VAT, tax, currency, excise and security – and can form the foundation for continued seamless trade.
From my October meeting with Michel Barnier and senior officials, I know that a willingness exists on the EU side to explore these possibilities more fully. The meeting also confirmed that Tusk’s offer is still on the table.
Rather than cling hopelessly to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Government must return to that offer. By resolving the border question with existing techniques, we can immediately start negotiating an optimal, wide-ranging Free Trade Agreement. I have already presented the Government with a Trade Facilitation Chapter and new Border Protocol to catalyse this process.
In parallel, we must intensify our preparations for trading on WTO terms. This is no cause for alarm, and those doubting this should look to the UK’s booming exports – up by nearly £100bn since before the referendum. The latest ONS figures put exports to non-EU countries at £342bn, compared to exports to EU countries of £274bn.
Much of that boom is through expansion into new markets. Since 1998, UK goods exports to non-EU countries have grown 16 times faster than its exports to the EU.
Yet scaremongering has clouded our perception of WTO rules. We are told that just-in-time supply chains will be unable to continue across customs borders. But in reality the operation of these chains is as dependent upon non-EU goods as on those from the EU. 21% of UK automotive manufacturers’ bought-in supply chain comes from outside the EU – compared to 36% from the EU and 43% from the UK – yet the customs procedures required for that sizeable proportion do not pose an insurmountable problem.
We are told that even minor customs delays will cause unprecedented queues on the M20 and economic disaster. But Operation Stack – limiting access to the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Dover – was activated for seven months in total between 1998 and 2015, without any of the “catastrophes” now imagined.
Responding to these Project Fear claims, we must always ask: why? Why would a rules-based organisation like the EU suddenly start behaving illegally, to the detriment of its people and in defiance of international agreements? As Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, has said in dismissing fears of major disruption between Dover and Calais: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
It is true that the EU has trade deals with around 70 countries, which the UK will have to novate. This process has already begun and no country has signalled an unwillingness to co-operate. But remember that many of these agreements are very small. Switzerland alone accounts for half of UK exports to these 70 countries and it, Norway, Turkey and South Korea account for over 75%. Renegotiating a small number of agreements to cover the vast majority of this trade should not be a prohibitive task.
Though not an optimal arrangement, there is thus nothing to fear from WTO rules. Its 164 members represent 98% of world trade. We must be ready to trade on those terms to smooth the transition and demonstrate that we are serious.
That way, we shall be negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EU on sure foundations. Realistically, of course, a full agreement will not be reached by March, but this need not pose a problem. So long as progress has been made towards an agreement by then, the EU and the UK can jointly notify the WTO as soon as possible after our exit date of our intent to negotiate an FTA. Under Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, after notification of a sufficiently detailed FTA with an appropriate plan and schedule, we could maintain zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions for a “reasonable length of time” (exceeding “10 years only in exceptional cases”) without violating the bar on discriminating against other nations under WTO rules.
So, rather than the Withdrawal Agreement’s choice of a transition period ending in “20XX” or a potentially permanent and definitely intolerable backstop, this proposal would provide stability and clarity for the time-limited negotiating period, delivering a zero-tariff, mutually beneficial trade agreement. That would surely command a majority in Parliament. That is the alternative. That is the way ahead.
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This is an extended version of this Telegraph article.