Monday 16 July 2018

May finally outlines post-Brexit plan for EU trade - but that's the easy bit

Campaigners Will Dry (left) and Femi Oluwole speak to a police officer during a demonstration at Chequers. Photo: Getty
Campaigners Will Dry (left) and Femi Oluwole speak to a police officer during a demonstration at Chequers. Photo: Getty

Jill Lawless

British Prime Minister Theresa May corralled her Cabinet inside an English country house for a long, hot day yesterday, and announced that the divided government had finally agreed on a plan for a future free-trade deal with the European Union.

The proposal aims to keep the UK and the bloc in a free-trade zone for goods, but not for services, which make up the bulk of the British economy.

But getting the Conservative government to agree with itself after almost 12 hours of talks at Chequers may be the easy part. As ministers met behind closed doors - and without their phones, to prevent snooping and leaks - the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned the bloc would not accept anything that treated the union's single market, which allows the free flow of goods and services, as a "big supermarket".

Realistic

After the British statement, Mr Barnier tweeted that the EU would "assess proposals to see if they are workable & realistic."

At first glance the British proposals sit uneasily with repeated EU warnings that the UK cannot "cherry pick" the benefits of EU membership, such as access to the tariff-free customs union and single market, without accepting the responsibilities, which include allowing the free movement of EU citizens to the UK.

The UK is firm that it will end free movement, as well as the jurisdiction of the EU's top court in British affairs.

Friday's meeting at the 16th-century manor house 65km northwest of London came with just nine months to go until the UK leaves the bloc, and with the EU warning that time is running out to seal a divorce deal.

Currently Britain is part of the EU's single market - which allows for the frictionless flow of goods and services among the 28 member states - and its tariff-free customs union for goods. That will end after Brexit, but what will replace it remains unclear.

Ever since Britain voted to leave the EU two years ago, its government has been divided between Brexit-backing ministers who want a sharp break from the EU so the UK can strike new trade deals around the world, and a more pro-EU group that wants to avoid tariffs and other friction between its biggest trading partner.

That view has been echoed by big manufacturers, including Airbus and Jaguar Land Rover, who warn they could abandon Britain if the EU and the UK cannot strike a strong free trade deal. Airbus alone employs some 14,000 workers in Britain.

Airbus chief executive Tom Enders slammed Britain's divided government, saying "Her Majesty's government still has no clue, or at least no consensus, on how to execute Brexit without severe harm."

Leading pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, met in private on the eve of Friday's meeting, sparking rumours some could quit rather than agree to Mrs May's proposal. Under the proposals - which will be published in detail next week - Britain would agree to maintain the same rules as the bloc for trade in goods and agricultural products. The UK will also promise to keep "high regulatory standards" for areas including the environment and employment law.

Under the plan, however, Britain will not seek to stay in the single market for services. The government said it recognised that meant the UK and the EU would have less access to each other's markets.

On customs, the plan calls for the UK to use technology at the border to determine whether goods are bound for Britain or the EU, and to charge the appropriate tariffs.

Britain said the proposal would also solve the problem of the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Britain has promised to maintain an invisible border, free of customs posts and other infrastructure.

In a tacit acknowledgement that Brussels may not like the proposals, the British government said it would step up preparations for a "no deal" Brexit - though it said it strongly favoured an agreement.

Irish Independent

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