It seems we’ve been here so many times before: another scare story about the threat of Nissan leaving the UK and jobs being lost in Sunderland post-Brexit. This time, it’s all about the proposed trade deal between European Union and Japan. The argument is basically as follows: If the EU and Japan were to conclude a trade deal before the UK has one with Japan, it would put the UK at a competitive disadvantage and drive Nissan out of the UK.
I’m reminded of Philip of Macedon, who famously sent a message to Sparta: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” The Spartans replied with a single word: “If.” If our government is to make a success of Brexit, then it needs a bit of the old Spartan spirit. It needs to stop focusing on excuses, and develop a single-minded determination to achieve the best that it possibly can for Britain.Claim: If the EU negotiates a trade deal with Japan before the UK does, then it’ll be bad for British businesses. Quite probably so. How about, then, a solution? Let’s get on and make absolutely sure that we get there first.
The European Union claims that under Article 4(3) of the Treaty on European Union, we can’t do it. That gives us a duty of ‘sincere co-operation’ with the European Union whilst we’re members of it. It’s a great argument with just one small flaw: it’s utter baloney. My apologies for getting technical for a moment, but whatever ‘sincere co-operation’ means, it cuts both ways. The EU isn’t ‘sincerely co-operating’ with us if they deliberately try to make it harder for us to succeed post-Brexit. They’re not meeting their obligations to their neighbours (ie. us) under Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty either. And ‘sincere co-operation’ is poorly defined: it couldn’t possibly take precedence over better-defined parts of the Treaty on European Union – like for example Article 21(2)(e) which speaks of “progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade”. A European Union telling us we can’t talk to other countries about the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade is a European Union ignoring its own rules, which to be honest is one of the main reasons we’re leaving in the first place. The European Union is supposed to respect the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994, of which Article 24(4) says that a Customs Union is to facilitate trade and not “to raise barriers to the trade of other contracting parties with such territories”. Which is precisely what the EU is doing – not because of the UK, but because they’re making it harder for Japan to negotiate a free trade deal with us by putting barriers in their way.
So the British government needs to get on with it, rather than playing into the EU’s hands. We know the EU takes a decade or more, on average, to negotiate trade deals (and if the EU suddenly develops uncharacteristic speed and negotiates the deal before Brexit, grandfathering arrangements will then apply to the UK). It’s a hugely bureaucratic process – not least because they need to get 28 countries to all agree a common negotiating position to be able to start negotiations with the other side. At every stage those 28 countries need to accept the deal, and any concessions made will disproportionately harm certain countries. But we can do better than a decade. If our government has the bottle, we can get there first. If the Philippines can negotiate a deal with EFTA in just one year, surely the UK can negotiate deals quickly too.
What’s needed is the political will to make it happen. And that, with this Conservative government, is the biggest weakness in the whole Brexit process. Get Brexit right, and the benefits will be pretty much instant. Get it wrong, and it could take years. Courage seems to be in short supply at present: our government needs to develop a backbone – not just for the sake of workers in Sunderland, but for the many jobs that could be created if only it lost its self of self-deprecation and remembered that we’re a world leader in research, intelligence, science and technology, that we speak a global language and that we’re one of the world’s largest economies.
We’re an attractive catch for any nation to trade with; it’s high time we started acting like it.