Making social science accessible

16 Nov 2018

UK-EU Relations

The Brexit deal will turn the UK into a ‘slave state’ Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed on Tuesday. The agreement has now been published, and as far as I can see there’s nothing in it that gives Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the right to sell your firstborn to the highest bidder.

Equally, Theresa May claimed at Prime Minister’s Questions that this deal means the UK will be leaving the EU Customs Union.

But actually the document devotes much of its 500-plus pages to describing, in tedious legal language, precisely how the UK will stay in the Customs Union, for all intents and purposes, for the foreseeable future. So that’s not very plausible either.

So why is this deal so unpopular with both Brexit supporters and Remainers? Essentially it all comes down to the Leave slogan in the referendum: ‘Take back control’. What the deal means is that we take control of some things, but we lose some of the control we have now over others.

Most immediately, probably the most important feature of the deal is that absolutely nothing will change until at least December 2020, because it includes a ‘transition period’ during which – apart from losing our vote in Brussels – pretty much everything continues as now.

This is hardly ideal, but at least in the short-term will ensure stability. But what about after that? Most of the controversy has been about how to resolve the Prime Minister’s apparently contradictory promises that there should be no ‘hard border’ either between Ireland and Northern Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The deal mostly resolves that by saying that the UK will be staying in the customs union ‘unless and until’ someone can figure out a better way of dealing with the Irish border problem. That is, until both the EU and the UK agree, jointly, that it’s not necessary anymore.

Don’t hold your breath. And that means that trade to and from the EU won’t be subject to tariffs, but we’ll still have to charge EU tariffs on goods from outside.

That’s good for business and the economy – but it means we’ll have considerably less control than now, since at least at the moment we have a vote in Brussels on what EU trade policy ought to be.

The Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t tell us what the future relationship between the EU and the UK will look like. Moreover, if you were hoping to see cheap, chlorinated American chicken show up in Tesco, you’ll probably be waiting a while, since being in a customs union makes it much harder for the UK to do its own trade deals.

And it’s not just trade policy where we’re handing back control. The EU have put a high price on allowing us to stay in the customs union – we’re going to have to continue to follow EU rules on labour rights, the environment, state subsidies to business and so on.

Good news for workers. Oh, and those of us who breathe air. But another loss of control.

But the Prime Minister is on stronger ground when she says that another one of her ‘red lines’ – ending free movement – is still intact.

The Withdrawal Agreement doesn’t tell us what the future relationship between the EU and the UK will look like. That’s still to be negotiated, and will take years – it will probably run not to hundreds but thousands of pages.

But so far both the EU and the government have stuck to their guns: free movement will end, and the UK will be outside the Single Market.

This is doubly bad news for the economy – it will make it harder for the UK to trade with the EU, since there will be new regulatory barriers, if not tariffs, and we’ll have fewer European migrants, who boost the economy and help pay for public services.

But if your priority was more control over immigration policy, we are definitely heading in that direction, although not for a while yet. Does the deal deliver on the promises made in the referendum, or by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech?

No, not even close. Is it better than ‘No Deal’? Almost certainly, at least from an economic perspective.

And perhaps most importantly, what happens if Parliament rejects it, as seems quite possible? No Deal? Can we get a better deal? A second referendum?

I don’t know – and the problem is that neither does anyone else.

By Professor Jonathan Portes, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared in Metro.


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