A good EU-UK trade deal now looks impossible

The clock is ticking. With a few months to go, Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU is as far away as ever.

Union Jack and European flag

The clock is ticking. With a few months to go, Boris Johnson’s trade deal with the EU is as far away as ever.

Last week the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he was “disappointed” by the lack of progress and an agreement with the UK “seems unlikely”.

Indeed he went further and said “too often this week it felt as if we were going backwards more than forward. I simply do not understand why we are wasting valuable time.”

The UK’s negotiating tactics appear to be tabling documents that go nowhere, demands that will not be met, reopening old arguments, cherry picking, and waiting for the inevitable – for somebody to pull the plug.

Less progress has been made than was promised before and since the 2016 referendum.

Remember the former trade secretary Liam Fox telling the Conservative conference in 2017: “We’re going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the EU so we’ve got no disruption of trade.”

Well so far only a trade agreement with Japan seems possible – and that is a ‘roll over’ of the Japan – EU agreement but with the Japanese insisting it will not be as good a deal as the EU. And our trade secretary Liz Truss is still pretty worried about is problems with Stilton cheese.

Truss has been trying to get some traction. She opened up trade talks with New Zealand and Australia (itself the basis to get into the 11 nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) deal.

But the response from our commonwealth cousins is that that the UK is ‘not match fit’. New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, said in London the UK was still not ready to engage in talks with and that he was “very frustrated.” as the Government do not to know what it wanted from negotiations and warned that the UK was over-stretching, itself trying to negotiate several several ‘agreements’ at one go.

The fact is the Government believed its own rhetoric (and TV adverts) on trade deals. Over optimism coupled with inexperience and a misguided sense of our own diminished importance in the world were never going to achieve “new era of global trade in the 2020s, including swift negotiation of favourable trade deals”.

Deals with the world’s biggest economies – the US and China which could replace part of a loss of trade with the EU are further away than ever.

A US trade agreement is now off the radar. Trade Secretary Liz Truss unwisely said that the highly experienced and tough US trade negotiators were talking “a good game” on free trade – while restricting import access. It also transpires from some press reports that Johnson and Truss are desperate and will cave in to any US demands to drop the poised ‘digital tax’ on tech companies.

US unions who have some involvement in trade negotiations say that Trump (if he wins) will squeeze every last drop he can from the UK and give as little in return. “It’s what he does” they say.

Joe Biden (if he wins) will have his mind on other issues like stabilising the US and sorting out the Covid crisis. On trade US unions say he would make a trade deal with the EU a priority in any event.

Whether Trump or Biden wins, the problems of including agri-food and access to the NHS are not going to go away. In a weakened position Johnson will face the tough choice – a deal at any price or no deal.

Any thought of a trade deal with China is not just off the radar – its currently in a different solar system.

Relationships with Beijing will take many years to repair – not least because of Johnson’s twisting and turning over Huawei 5G technology, the row over Hong Kong, and criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Plus, China’s policy of ‘belt and road’ – their investment policy in infrastructure projects (which they will want from the UK) in counties worldwide will drive many Tories into complete apoplexy.

David Cameron’s statement that the UK and China were facing a “golden era” after President Xi’s UK visit in 2015 has long disappeared.

It is doubtful if the EU will say ‘enough is enough’ and pull the plug. They are too skilled and courteous for that to happen.

There may be a mad scramble at the eleventh hour, with some form of ‘face saver’ for Johnson – but it will not be the ‘oven ready, no tariffs, no fee walk in the park’ deal we were promised – and Labour will make sure the Tories will own it.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite and the TUC General Council’s Lead on Employment and Union Rights.

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