As I write this it remains unclear whether or not there will be a free trade agreement with the EU and the negotiations, that have been going on for months, hang in the balance.
It is important to remember that this is no longer about “Brexit”. We left the European Union at the end of January. We are no longer a member state. It is also no longer about “no deal”. There is already a Withdrawal Agreement that is in place and that resolved how border arrangements would work, protected the rights of UK citizens who were resident in the EU and vice versa and settled how remaining EU funding programmes would be treated. Last week, discussions on the precise technical arrangements to make things work smoothly in Northern Ireland were finalised and agreed.
After we left the EU in January, there was an 11 month “Transition Period” during which current trading arrangements remained in place and both parties agreed to discuss what tariffs there might be on goods that are traded from 2021 onwards. The Government has always been clear that it is not asking the EU to agree on anything exceptional or unusual in such an agreement. We simply seek an off-the-shelf free trade agreement similar to the one that the EU has with countries like Canada or South Korea. This would enable us to cooperate on trade and reduce tariffs in both directions but, crucially, not compromise our ability to make our own laws in future.
The sticking points in the discussions all stem from the fact that the EU has been in denial about the fact that we are no longer a member state and that we are now an independent, sovereign country again. They are seeking to retain all the privileges they enjoyed while we were a member. Therefore they continue to request the same fishing access rights to our waters when that is no longer possible under international law. They have also been trying to get us to agree to align our regulations with theirs but the whole point of leaving the EU is to regain control of our own laws.
Many people are concerned that any “deal” will constrain us and some will be thinking we should just walk away without a further agreement and let tariffs be applied. After all, the EU has more to lose from tariffs being applied than the UK because they are so dependent on access to our market to sell their goods. It may well come to that and only time will tell. However, the EU is our nearest neighbour and, although this is very frustrating, it is right to persevere for now to try to agree on future arrangements on trade. Eventually, the EU will reconcile themselves to the fact that we have become an independent country again and, after years of fraught negotiations, we should seek to rekindle good relations with our neighbours when that time comes.