Trade negotiations happen after the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is signed, so why don’t those wanting a softer Brexit just vote for the WA and argue about trade later? The Political Declaration which does talk about trade is vague and non-binding. The reason is straightforward. Parliament will get very little say on the framework for those trade talks. The only real chance most MPs will get to influence the type of trade relationship the UK has with the EU is by directing the government now, as the price of passing the WA.
However so far parliament has largely failed to do that, largely because Conservative MPs have put party unity above the future health of the country. So what will happen to politics and the economy if parliament votes to pass May’s deal, either today or in a few months time? The first and well known point to make is that nothing would immediately change as far as UK firms and citizens are concerned, because we would start a transition period where we remain inside the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (but no longer have any say on the rules of either). There will be little economic bounce from ending No Deal uncertainty, for reasons outlined below. So the immediate action will be about the politics of negotiating what happens after the transition period ends.
If you want to know what that would be like, just look at the last year or two. Most of the arguments within the Conservative party over the last year or so have been about trade, and not the content of the WA. So signing the WA settles very little. It does mean that we have signed up to the backstop, but May still pretends that this backstop means we can still stay outside the CU. I cannot see Brexiters meekly accepting that the UK should join the CU either. We will continue to have endless discussion of unicorn ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Irish border designed only to avoid us being up to a CU. The inevitable truth of course is that the backstop implies some part of the UK has to be in the CU, but as the last two years have shown large parts of the Conservative Party refuse to accept reality when they don’t like it.
At some point during the transition period Theresa May could be replaced as Prime Minister. It seems very likely, given the views of Conservative Party members on Brexit, that a Brexiter will be elected in her place. The likely outcome of that, as far as Brexit is concerned, is either that nothing changes, or that the government attempts to persuade the EU to do the impossible.
For example Theresa May is determined that we should leave the Single Market (SM) because her primary aim is to end Freedom of Movement (FM). Any successor is likely to want to leave the SM because they do not want to be bound by EU regulations on minimum workers rights or the environment. Because of the economic damage that will cause (see below) the government will attempt to get a trade agreement with the EU that mitigates that harm. They will find out, yet again, that it is impossible to get anything close to the benefits of the SM without being in the SM. And because the UK will not want to accept that, the negotiations will go on and on.
But at least No Deal will be off the table? Unfortunately just as you think you have avoided one cliff edge, another appears. If no trade deal is done during the transition period, we crash out much like we would with No Deal now. And the Brexiters in government will be saying not to worry the EU always cave at the last minute. They will fight extending the transition period from 21 months, even though it is impossible to negotiate a trade agreement in that time, because the ERG wants to fall off a cliff.
In short, if May’s deal is approved we can look forward to a politics dominated by internal squabbles within the Conservative Party, and the absence of constructive negotiations with Brussels, for perhaps the next four or more years. Much as we have seen for the past two years. This is because the WA does nothing to resolve internal Conservative conflicts, and more fundamentally conflicts inherent with Brexit itself.
If, despite it all, the government manages to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, what will be the economic and political consequences for the UK? Will it all be worthwhile in the end? A good guide to the economics is the study involving a collaboration between the Centre of Economic Performance and The UK in a Changing Europe, which is both authoritative and representative of similar work. They believe that from 2030 onwards UK GDP per capita will be lower by between 1.9% and 5.5% as a consequence of leaving the Single Market. The midpoint of that range represents lost resources for each household of about £3,000 each year. There will of course be a large hit to the public finances, implying higher taxes or less public spending, even after allowing for an end to contributions to the EU.
Why such a large range? The 1.9% mostly comes from the direct effects of lower and more costly trade, using standard trade modelling techniques together with reasonable estimates of the barriers created by leaving the SM. The government using a similar model get similar numbers. The higher figure in the study’s range is based on empirical evidence for the impact of trade on productivity, which captures other effects such as lower foreign direct investment or reduced competition. Because the empirical evidence captures many more effects than the model, we would expect it to be larger. Those who dispute numbers of this scale in this range have to explain not only why the models, including those used by the government, are wrong but also why the simple correlations between trade and prosperity more than back the models up.
Our best guess is that we have already lost over 2% of GDP as a result of stagnant investment and sterling’s depreciation. As a result, most people will probably not notice the economic impact of ending the transition period, because most of the firms that were going to leave will have already left as a result of cliff edge uncertainty. Instead Brexit will be a gradual decline in the UK relative to the remaining EU.
What about Global Britain? Most trade agreements involve tariff reduction, so being in the CU largely limits the scope for Mr. Fox to do new trade deals. In addition, who would want to harmonise their regulations with the UK, when the gains from doing the same for the EU are much greater. A more likely outcome is that we harmonise our regulations with the US.
The government will be desperate to sign a trade deal with the US to show that ‘global Britain’ is more than a slogan, and that means the US will largely get their way in terms of regulations (including food standards) and participation in the NHS. Thus the longer term political consequence of parliament agreeing to May’s deal is the gradual transition of the UK into a US style economy.
In an age where the regulations governing trade in goods and services are increasingly decided by large regional blocks, the only rationalisation of Brexit that makes any kind of sense is that we move from the EU block to the US block. That is what a lot of the Brexiters want, which is why they resist the backstop so much, because that ties our tariffs to the EU. But the political consequences of tariffs are less important in shaping an economy than regulations on things like working conditions and the environment. That is why, even with the backstop, Brexit will mean we will become more like the US economy. Whatever the merits or otherwise of that, a big difference is that we had a say in how the EU is run but we will have none in what the US does. A 51st state without representation if you like. Taking back control it is not.