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17 January 2019

Dr Peter Holmes, Reader in  Economics at the University of Sussex, Director of Interanalysis and Fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory

Since the Government’s defeat in the House of Commons, there has been a flurry of comments, notably from Steve Baker arguing that Mrs May’s deal can be replaced by some form of Free Trade Agreement.

One must immediately point out that the treaty basis of the Withdrawal Agreement does not include a long-term trade agreement. This can only be negotiated after Brexit. But even if it could be negotiated now, it would not solve the problem of the Irish Border. The UK and the EU in both the Good Friday Agreement and the Dec 2017 joint statement committed themselves not merely to barrier-free trade in goods with no hard border in Ireland, but to the preservation of an All-Island Economy.

Border controls are needed between countries other than those in the EU’s single market for numerous reasons, including ensuring correct payment of taxes but predominantly for ensuring that goods seeking to avoid tariffs at the border are genuinely entitled to cross duty-free. If there is a complete customs union, all goods legally imported into one partner can move duty-free into the other – as there are a common external tariff and some mechanism for allocating tariff revenue – so there is no need for customs checks as such at the border.

If there is only a free trade agreement (FTA) there must be checks on the origin of goods crossing the border in order to establish whether they come from third countries and therefore are not tariff-free. There are customs checks for this purpose at the Norway-Sweden border and the EU-Turkey border, even though there is an arrangement called a Customs Union between the EU and Turkey. This is because many types of goods are excluded and there is provision for anti-dumping duties in exceptional cases.

In addition, and equally important, border checks are needed to ensure that imported goods conform to the importing country’s technical rules.  Within the EEA (EU + Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) all parties are legally obliged to ensure full compliance with EU mandatory standards, including food health rules, and very importantly, adhere to a mutually recognised system for “Conformity Assessment” certification. The EU is insistent that there must be checks in place if the UK wishes to have a separate regulatory regime.

Not every cross-border transaction needs to be physically checked. Much of the paperwork for these processes can be completed electronically and some checks can be done away from the border. However, there must still be provision at the border for checks to verify that paperwork and substantive compliance is in order. The EU has protocols for sample checks at borders. Only a small percentage of non-food items need to be checked but a high proportion of food items do need to be checked, which is a crucial point in the Irish border issue.

It is frequently suggested that a proposal by former Swedish customs chief, Lars Karlsson, already allows new technology to replace all physical border checks. But most analysts read his paper as requiring some border infrastructure and his latest statement appears to confirm this. However, it does not matter what folks at UKTPO or those we debate with think about Mr Karlsson’s plan, but rather what the EU thinks since they would have to agree to accept a technological solution. And so far, they have not.

Whilst a Customs Union would ease goods trade between the EU and the UK, as there would be no tariffs to pay, it would still be necessary to perform document and physical checks to ensure compliance with standards and the collection of VAT (see our animated video “The Customs Union: The Fiction of ‘Frictionless’ Trade”). It follows from this that to avoid border controls in Ireland there must be both a Customs Union and single market arrangements in goods between the north and south of Ireland. Therefore, the UK and the EU agreed that until such time as, yet unknown, technology allows monitoring without a physical inspection of what goes across the border, there has to be an arrangement such as the proposed Backstop.

Arguments in Parliament that call into question the UK’s willingness to continue with a backstop-type arrangement make the other side even more insistent that it must be a legally-binding commitment. That is part of the Withdrawal Agreement which the EU has reaffirmed that it is not prepared to re-open.

 

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Sussex or UK Trade Policy Observatory.

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January 17th, 2019

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Image of Alan Winters10 December 2018

L. Alan Winters CB, Professor of Economics and Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory 

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration are being presented as a means to end the uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with Europe. But in an explainer for the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe, Professor L Alan Winters argues that this is not the case. Uncertainty will continue regardless of what happens to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Briefly, he argues that, if the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by Parliament and the EU:

  • The backstop it mandates requires a customs union between the UK and the EU and that most EU regulations for goods will apply in Northern Ireland. However, there is no regulatory alignment between the rest of the UK and the EU and so, if the backstop came into operation, there would be border formalities both in the Irish Sea and as UK goods entered the EU via any other route.
  • Negotiating a trade agreement with the EU will take a lot longer than the 21 months allowed for it in the Withdrawal Agreement, not least because every EU member state has a veto over trade agreements.
  • The Political Declaration that defines the parameters for that negotiation is imprecise in critical places and is, anyway, non-binding.

However, neither would rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement resolve the uncertainty. There is a wide range of possible outcomes all but one of which impose serious economic harm and/or require further negotiation. The option that involves least uncertainty and cost would be to remain within the EU; however, trying to achieve that outcome involves both significant political risks and the risk of ‘no deal’ if the attempt failed.

‘Through a glass, darkly’ is biblical – 1 Corinthians 13:12 – and is interpreted as meaning that we can see only imprecisely and via a mirror, but that, in the end, all will become clear. Seems about the best we can hope for.

Read the full article, What are the options for the UK’s trading relationship with the EU after Brexit?

December 10th, 2018

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17 October 2018

Dr Michael Gasiorek is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

UK-EU negotiations are in a mess. There appears to be a genuine impasse, where the stumbling block is the issue of no border in Ireland. The EU has indicated it is for the UK to make a better offer, while the UK is arguing that the EU needs to be more reasonable.  Both are right, if they want to avoid ‘no deal’. (more…)

October 17th, 2018

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Image of Alan Winters26 September 2018

L. Alan Winters CB is Professor of Economics and Director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and Nicolo Tamberi is a Research Assistant in Economics for the Observatory

The brusque dismissal of elements of Mrs May’s Chequers plan at the informal meeting in Salzburg last week has stimulated feverish attempts to revive the case for a deep and special UK-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA), under the title of a CETA-plus agreement. This effort received substantial reinforcement from the Institute for Economic Affairs’ paper of 24 September 2018. None of the discussion, however, has dealt seriously with the fact that an FTA will require the introduction of border formalities on UK-EU trade and that these will both violate the commitment to the absence of a border in Ireland and create serious congestion at those ports dealing with UK-EU flows, which will increase trading costs and cut trade with the EU. (more…)

September 26th, 2018

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Photo of Emily Lydgate19 September 2018

Dr Emily Lydgate is a lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex and a fellow of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

In its Chequers White Paper, the UK government has proposed that, in order to facilitate a frictionless border, it will operate a dual customs regime known as a Facilitated Customs Arrangement (‘FCA’). By replacing rules of origin checks at the EU-UK border with internal monitoring, the FCA requires firms to establish ‘robustly’ the destination of their products to ensure that correct duties have been applied, and then, if they wish, to seek rebates if they have been overcharged. Past UKTPO blogs have addressed logistical challenges and strategic downsides of this ‘Fantastically Complicated Alternative’ (see also Does the Chequers Agreement provide any steps to Brexit heaven?)

But would it be compatible with the rules of the World Trade Organization? The precise details of the FCA’s operation remain unclear. Barring a dispute, it’s not possible to settle the question definitively, but the FCA does prima facie pose a risk of WTO non-compliance. We presume that the UK government has undertaken some analysis of this, and that it covers (at least) the following issues. (more…)

September 19th, 2018

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9 July 2018

Dr Michael Gasiorek is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sussex and Managing Director of InterAnalysis. He is a Fellow of the UKTPO.

In good part, the answer depends on the extent to which this agreement moves on from the Government’s previous position, is feasible, is credible, and is acceptable to the EU. It also depends on whether it will be acceptable to the Conservative party, which the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson throw into serious doubt.

In this blog, I focus on one aspect of this –  the extent to which the “facilitated customs arrangement” (FCA), which is central to the agreement notionally reached at Chequers, is substantively different from the previous idea of a “New Customs Partnership” (NCP). (more…)

July 10th, 2018

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Image of Alan Winters05 July 2018

L. Alan Winters CB is Professor of Economics and Director of the Observatory.

Two years in and the Cabinet is still squabbling over the UK’s trade relationship with Europe. Among the options most discussed, if not most likely to occur, are

  • The Jersey option – arrangements to provide conditions equivalent to the customs union and the Single Market in goods;
  • Mrs May’sthird way’ customs partnership – where the UK collects EU-level tariffs at the border and rebates them only if UK tariffs are lower and firms can prove that the goods did not leave the UK. Until the UK can convince the EU that the technology to do the latter will actually prevent the leakage of lower-taxed goods into the EU, this is effectively the ‘customs union’; and
  • Unilateral free trade – ‘no deal’ followed by the immediate abolition of all UK tariffs.

This blog does not assess the relative merits of these arrangements, but notes that they share a common flaw: they ignore 80 percent of the British economy! The more successful 80 percent, in fact – the services sectors, in which the UK has a manifest comparative advantage (see below). The advocates of these plans gloss over this difficulty by claiming that the UK can negotiate services trade agreements both with the EU and with other countries. But this is easier said than done. (more…)

July 6th, 2018

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22 May 2018

Alasdair Smith is an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex and is a member of the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

Not before time, the UK government is giving attention to the ‘backstop’ provision which will be written into the Withdrawal Agreement for Brexit to avoid a hard border in Ireland.  But rather than focussing on how to sell this politically in the UK, the government needs to address the more pressing question of whether the European Union (EU) will agree to the UK’s preferred version of the backstop. (more…)

May 22nd, 2018

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18 May 2018

Julia Magntorn is Research Officer in Economics at the UKTPO.

While Theresa May and her cabinet are trying to agree on whether to back the maximum facilitation proposal or the customs partnership, another option, nicknamed the ‘Norway option’ which would see the UK remaining a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), has made a comeback in the Brexit debate. (more…)

May 18th, 2018

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17 May 2018

Dr Michael Gasiorek is Senior Lecturer in Economics and Dr Peter Holmes is Reader in Economics at the University of Sussex. They are both Fellows of the UKTPO and Managing Director and Director of InterAnalysis respectively. 

The government’s two preferred options for post-Brexit trade with the EU are “Maximum Facilitation” whereby technological solutions are used to simplify trade procedures, and a so-called “New Customs Partnership”.

This blog discusses the implications of the New Customs Partnership (NCP) scheme. It must be borne in mind that the EU has so far rejected both and that in fact the degree of detail currently provided by the Government on either is so slight that we cannot be sure what is proposed. It is also arguable that they are not alternatives since under any scenario the government is keen to ensure the maximum simplification of procedures in order for trade to be ‘as frictionless as possible’. Even if they were viable, both the NCP and the Max Fac proposals involve significant trade-offs – namely that they involve firms in expensive set-up costs in order to be able to reduce transactions costs. (more…)

May 17th, 2018

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