After more than four years of debate, negotiation and political turmoil, the UK and the EU have agreed a post-Brexit trade deal.
Two Challenges NI contributors have been following the talks closely and have now examined the final agreement. Here, they answer five key questions about Brexit, the Trade Deal and the future of the entire continent.
Ryan Hoey is a 21 year old Politics student at Queen’s University Belfast. He campaigned for Leave in the EU Referendum and stood as a candidate for the Conservative and Unionist Party in the 2018 Local Elections.
Conor McArdle is a 23 year old Law graduate who recently completed a Masters in Human Rights Law from Queen’s University Belfast. He has interned in the Irish Parliament and currently works in Brussels.
What is the best part of this deal for the UK?
The UK team has pulled off some impressive feats in these negotiations. This is the first time that the EU has agreed to a zero tariff, zero quota deal with a third country. There are provisions on legal services and data that go beyond anything the EU has agreed in other Free Trade Agreements. There are big wins for the UK on trusted trader schemes, bespoke customs facilitations and protecting financial services from cross-retaliation. The UK has also secured smaller wins on aviation, haulage rights, criminal data sharing and extradition. The national security establishment will bemoan the loss of the European Arrest Warrant, but those of us who care about civil liberties will class it as a win.
Perhaps the best part of the deal, however, is on sovereignty. The UK negotiating team has managed to get the EU to agree to an unprecedentedly close trading relationship, but without giving away our regulatory autonomy. There is no role for the European Court of Justice in the deal, no special status for retained EU law, no signing up to the EU state aid regime and our competition commitments are based on UK domestic legislation.
The best part of this deal for the UK is its existence at all. The UK would have suffered monumentally from the impact of a no-deal Brexit, and the fact that the UK Government ran it so close is evidence of the reckless ideology that has always been at the centre of the Brexit project. Tariff free, quota free access to the EU single market was the cornerstone of what the UK wanted, and needed, and indeed they got it. However, trade deals between the EU and third countries (such as the recent Canada-EU deal) exist to take a previously inferior arrangement and strike a deal to create a superior arrangement, with the ultimate aim of making trade easier and reducing red tape. No matter how good a deal the UK got, this will always be inferior to EU membership. Any deal is simply damage limitation.
What is the best part of this deal for the EU?
There are not as many noticeable wins in this deal, because the EU got most of what it wanted in the Withdrawal Agreement. This included a large financial settlement, a Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the protection of EU citizens’ rights. The EU saw off UK attempts to agree mutual recognition of conformity assessments and professional qualifications, but it is difficult to class this as a win. The EU’s focus on enforcement over trade facilitation with third countries simply means higher prices for its own consumers. The EU also blocked a more comprehensive agreement on financial services, but it did sign up to a Joint Declaration committing both sides to establish a framework for structured regulatory cooperation by March next year.
Arguably the best part of this deal for the EU is on fishing, guaranteeing a five year transition for EU fishermen and agreeing to a cut in their quota much lower than the UK originally proposed. However, the provisions on fishing are not as good for the EU as first meets the eye. At the end of the transition, the UK could reduce the EU’s quota to zero and this agreement would limit the extent to which they could impose retaliatory tariffs.
The EU has negotiated a successful trade deal with a third country and offered more comprehensive access to the single market than any other deal ever has. However, access was not given by Europe without a commitment from the UK to the level playing field which represents a significant victory for the EU. UK access to the single market will remain conditional. The UK must establish its state aid regulator under terms agreed with the EU. The UK must keep its subsidy policy under agreed terms and keep similar environmental and labour standards. If either side improves those standards so that a competitive gap emerges, they can go to arbitration and possibly impose retaliatory tariffs. Thus, the Brexiteer fantasy of a low-tax trading UK swashbuckling and undercutting Europe on the world stage has vanished.
Who came off best?
Both sides will claim victory, but this deal clearly offers greater benefits to the UK (just as the Withdrawal Agreement was objectively better for the EU). The UK got a trade deal more comprehensive than Canada, but at the same time managed to maintain the ultimate objective of sovereignty. There will be additional barriers to trade compared to the status quo and Leavers should not be reluctant to admit that. The EU’s approach to trade with third countries simply vindicates our argument that as an institution it has been captured by protectionist producer interests.
Hopefully the UK will adopt a different approach, unilaterally simplifying import declarations and minimising conformity assessments not just with the EU but with the rest of the world, to the benefit of British consumers. As Adam Smith said: ‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.’ A commitment to global free trade which puts the consumer first will ensure the UK comes off better in the long-run.
Ultimately though, this deal is a win for both sides. It is an amicable departure that moves us to where we ought to be – friendly neighbours and not squabbling tenants.
In most trade deals each side is a winner as the agreement aims to improve on a previously inferior association. The UK has a good deal on trade, however it is a minimal deal overall when compared with other third countries, particularly on services. Services account for 80% of the British economy and almost half of its total exports. Yet the deal has little to offer on financial or professional services. This will be a major issue for the service industry in the UK.
What price has the UK paid for its access to the single market? Compared to other arrangements, the UK has accepted more stringent obligations, especially on the level playing field. The Brexiteers promised a break from the Brussels red tape. In this deal the UK is entwined in enough red tape to run from Brussels to London numerous times - just look at the new dispute mechanisms. Thus, the UK now has less access to the single market than it had as a member but now has the greatest ever obligations to Brussels of any third country in European Union history.
Does it live up to what was promised in the referendum?
Since the referendum, those who did not accept the result have argued Brexit will never live up to what was promised – pointing in particular to the infamous £350 million a week figure. However, this deal does ensure that in future we will not pay vast annual contributions to the EU budget and will only pay for the programmes we wish to participate in. From 1st January, the UK will also adopt the points-based immigration promised by the Vote Leave campaign and be able to sign independent trade deals as we leave the Customs Union.
The Remain campaign said in the referendum that we would never be able to regain our sovereignty and still be able to secure a trade deal. The UK would have to accept free movement of people in order to retain access to the Single Market. They have been proven wrong. On the bigger picture, the main objective of Brexit has been achieved. All of these issues – whether immigration or trade or fisheries – will now be decided by the British people at the ballot box. We might make some bad decisions, but the whole point of democracy is that it gives you the choice.
No, nothing could have lived up to the promise of the Referendum. A successful Brexit was and always will be a fantasy, and even the most ardent Brexiteers knew it deep down. The Referendum was won on outright lies, not half-truths or political spin, outright lies (The NHS could really do with that £350 a week right now). Brexiteers were able to paint leaving the EU as the best constitutional decision you could ever make. Brexiteers sold this tale like that mate who promises you that one epic night out that you just can't miss, but suddenly its 1 am and you've just been kicked out of Limelight without your coat.
What does the future hold?
Lots of it depends on future decisions. It depends on whether we can successfully conclude a Memorandum of Understanding on financial services by March, whether we decide to pursue a truly liberal trade agenda that brings benefits to consumers and not vested producer interests, whether we can get future agreements on SPS measures and professional qualifications, etc.
For Northern Ireland, the future is bright. These agreements have mitigated the risks and accentuated the opportunities in the Protocol. The trusted trader schemes and lack of tariffs on UK-EU trade help to remove friction East-West on goods, while provisions on cross-border trade in services reduce friction North-South. Students in Northern Ireland will get the best of both worlds with Irish taxpayers footing the bill for our continued access to Erasmus. Whether NI students continue to pick that over the new Turning scheme will show whether it is an adequate replacement.
For the UK as a whole, the future is in our hands. The success of our economy in the years ahead will be based on the tax, trade and regulatory policies we decide.
Britain was sleeping in the spare room during the divorce. Now they are about to leave the warmth of the EU house. The UK will always be impacted by the 'Brussels Effect' where the EU directly impacts the process of unilateral regulatory globalisation due to the EU's de facto externalisation of its laws outside its borders through market mechanisms (such as GDPR).
No matter what happens, the UK will always be in the EU's regulatory orbit. The pandemic's economic fallout will mask the Brexit economic shock at least in the short term. However, in the long term, the impacts will become clearer and more definable particularly on services as mentioned above.
The reckless ignorance and disregard towards peace on the island of Ireland will always continue to be one of the darkest chapters of the Brexit saga. Despite sterling diplomatic work in preventing a hard border, particularly from the Irish Government, the Good Friday Agreement has been brutally undermined by Brexit. The Conservatives' betrayal of Unionists in Northern Ireland was like a bad movie plot where the twist was all too obvious. Unionists should feel rightly aggrieved at the extra checks between NI and mainland Britain and question their own representatives' wisdom in backing Brexit. Brexit will not define the European Union. In fact, Brexit has been far down the EU's list of priorities for some time, but nonetheless this deal is indeed a success for Europe. Unity has been maintained, the single market uncompromised and peace on the island of Ireland protected as much as possible.
Brexit's negative effects will not come with a bang such as a dramatic burst tyre but rather its impact is a number of small punctures where the air will slowly flow out to the point of failure with constant top-ups required. Brexit is not one point in time it is a fluid thing made up of agreements, regulations, memorandums of understandings and other tools of statecraft. There will be many more to come in the next decades, each of which will slowly but surely realign Britain with Europe creating something more closely resembling the soft Brexit. Then comes the fundamental question - was it all worth it? But that’s a debate for another day. At least we can all agree one thing - that a Bad Deal is better than No Deal.