The transition period (TP) following the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will come to an end on 31st December, 2020 – just ten weeks away.
The principal purpose of the TP was to allow sufficient time – eleven months – for the UK and the EU to negotiate the terms of their future relationship. The Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Political Declaration (PD) that accompanied it were absolutely clear. The PD provided that the core of the future relationship was to be a “comprehensive and balanced Free Trade Agreement” that should “ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market.” The WA declared that the parties should “use their best endeavours, in good faith… to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship.”
Nobody, therefore, should have been in any doubt as to the obligations of the UK and the EU. They were both required to do their utmost to negotiate an FTA as quickly as possible. Moreover, that was not, by the standards of international negotiations, a particularly difficult task. The EU had, after all, very recently negotiated the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, which provided for a high degree of tariff-free trade between the two economies. Negotiating a similar deal with the UK, which was in perfect regulatory alignment with the EU, should have been relatively uncomplicated.
Indeed, that is what Michel Barnier himself told me when I attended a meeting with him in 2018. He produced a PowerPoint slide, showing an ascending order of potential trading relationships, and said that a CETA-style deal was the only one available to the UK. Given that was all the UK was seeking, it was fine by me.
Unfortunately, however, the negotiations have not proceeded as prescribed by the WA and PD. The EU have not used best endeavours to negotiate an FTA. Quite the contrary; they have declined to discuss anything other than their own “red lines” of obtaining continued access to UK fishing grounds – effectively recreating the Common Fisheries Policy – and the so-called “level playing field”, demanding continued UK adherence to EU standards and effective control of UK state aid policy. All this would be accompanied by continued judicial oversight by the European Court of Justice.
It is self-evident that such arrangements would not be respectful of UK sovereignty. What the EU was seeking to do was continue to treat the UK as if it were a member state, even after it had recovered its independence.
With the clock running down to 31st December and the EU remaining intransigent, the Prime Minister had no option but to inform the EU on Friday last that the UK was preparing to leave the TP on 31st December without a deal, and to trade with the EU on global WTO terms.
The door is not entirely shut; but if the EU do want a deal, they will need to abandon their “red lines” and negotiate quickly and seriously with the UK.