Brexit: Future Relationship White Paper

(Compiled 16th July 2018)

Following on from last week’s negotiating proposals supposedly agreed by the Cabinet at Chequers, the UK Government published, on 12th July, its long-awaited White Paper setting out its detailed vision on the future UK-EU relationship.  The 98-page document has received a cautious welcome by the EU-27 who are mindful of the deep divisions within the British Government.

In the White Paper, the UK Government is essentially seeking an ‘association agreement’ with the EU of unprecedented scale and depth so that the UK can achieve a ‘principled and practical Brexit’ which respects the referendum result and simultaneously acknowledges the deep trading relationship between the two parties.  The key points from an agri-food perspective are set out below;

  • Frictionless trade for goods: at the border between the UK and the EU.  This encompasses the establishment of a free trade area for goods as a means to protect the deeply integrated supply chains and ‘just-in-time’ processes developed over the past 40-plus years.
  • Common Rulebook for goods including agri-food: would seek to avoid customs and regulatory checks at the border but would only cover ‘those rules necessary to provide for frictionless trade at the border’.  The White Paper identifies three broad categories of rules relevant to agri-food and fisheries:
    • Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) rules – would be included in the common rulebook.  Linked with this, the UK would ‘make an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with the relevant EU rules, with all those rules legislated for by Parliament or the devolved legislatures.’
    • Rules relating to wider food policy – this would include marketing rules that determine how agri-food products can be described and labelled.  As these do not need to be checked at the border they would not be included in the common rulebook.  Geographical Indicators (GIs) (e.g Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies) would also be included in this category and the UK will be establishing its own GI scheme after Brexit in accordance with WTO rules.  As part of this, the UK would open its GI scheme to both UK and non-UK applicants.
    • Agricultural and Fisheries Policies – as previously communicated, the UK will leave both the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policies, thus enabling it to pursue domestic policies which best serve the UK’s interests.  Thus, these rules would not be included in the common rulebook. For fisheries, the UK is proposing annual negotiations with the EU on access to its waters.  Some EU Member States will have significant concerns about this.
  • Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA): would seek to ‘remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK and the EU as if they were a combined customs territory’. The Government claims that it would enable the UK to control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world. For businesses this would mean;
    • where a good reaches the UK border, and the destination can be robustly demonstrated by a trusted trader, it will pay the UK tariff if it is destined for the UK, and the EU tariff if it is destined for the EU. This is most likely to be relevant to finished goods; and
    • where a good reaches the UK border and the destination cannot be robustly demonstrated at the point of import, it will pay the higher of the UK or EU tariff. Where the good’s destination is later identified to be a lower tariff jurisdiction, it would be eligible for a repayment from the UK Government equal to the difference between the two tariffs. This is most likely to be relevant to intermediate goods.

The UK Government claims that up to 96% of UK goods trade would be able to pay the correct or no tariff upfront, with the remainder most likely to use the repayment mechanism. This is in effect combining the Customs Partnership and ‘Max-Fac’ proposals in the last year’s paper, both of which were rejected by the EU. There was an acknowledgement by the UK that this system would become operational in stages as both sides completed the necessary preparations. Given where the infrastructure is currently at, this process could take several years. The UK Government has already stated that it envisages the UK remaining part of the EU Customs Union for a year after the end of the Transition Period. This may well get extended. It is unclear what ability the UK will have to strike Free-Trade Agreements (FTAs) with other countries whilst it remains within the Customs Union.

  • Rules of Origin: agreement not to impose tariffs, quotas or routine requirements for Rules of Origin on any UK-EU trade in goods.  This would allow EU content to count as local content in UK exports to its FTA partners for Rules of Origin purposes, and UK content to count as local content in EU exports to its FTA partners.  ‘Diagonal cumulation’ would allow UK, EU and FTA partner content to be considered interchangeable in trilateral trade.
  • Trade with non-EU countries: the UK’s claims that the FCA will enable it to strike Free Trade Agreements with non-EU countries as the UK will have its own schedule with the WTO.
  • Participation in EU agencies: UK would seek continued participation in agencies which facilitate goods being placed on the EU market but conceded that it would not have voting rights.
  • State Aid: the UK would continue to apply the EU’s State Aid rules via a common rulebook. Although elsewhere in the document, the Government is seeking to reserve its right to make its own arrangements regarding tax. As highlighted in a recent article, there were questions about whether there would be limits on the UK implementing agricultural policy tools such as tax deposit schemes (e.g. similar to the Australian Farm Management Deposit Scheme) which do not comply with EU State Aid rules. This is an area that will require clarification, potentially via the Agriculture Bill due later in the year. 
  • Maintain high standards in environment, employment and consumer protection rules: includes ‘non-regression provisions’ to ensure that current high standards are maintained by the UK.
  • Northern Ireland/Ireland: taken together, the UK Government believes that its proposals (including the points set out above) would see the UK and the EU meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship.  It claims that this would preserve the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, honour the letter and the spirit of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement and ensure that the ‘backstop’ solution of the Withdrawal Agreement will not have to be used (i.e. Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market).  The Irish Government in particular has responded positively to this as it is also seeking to resolve the frictionless border riddle via the overall UK-EU relationship.  However, the UK Government’s proposals are arguably narrower than what was envisaged in the December Joint Report which contained commitments on protecting the all-island economy and North-South cooperation. The latest UK proposals are very much focused on goods trade only (i.e. services are omitted). 
  • New Joint Institutional Arrangements: these are required to manage the future relationship in key areas such as the common rulebook, including a clear process to update relevant rules in a manner that respects the UK’s sovereignty and provides Parliamentary scrutiny.  This will include regular dialogues at leader (PM) and Ministerial levels.  There would be a Joint Committee to discuss and interpret regulations as well to resolve disputes which may arise.  At times, such disputes could be resolved via a binding independent arbitration.  These bodies would have oversight by the European Courts of Justice (ECJ) as the interpreter of EU rules, but only the UK courts (whilst giving regard to EU case law) could give judgements on rules which apply to the UK.  Here, the UK is effectively conceding that in areas where it commits to adhering to the common rulebook, the ECJ would (indirectly) hold sway. 
  • End to Free Movement: however, the UK proposes introducing new frameworks which would enable ‘UK and EU citizens to continue to travel to each other’s countries and businesses and professionals to provide services’.  In agri-food, the provision of services associated with the supply of input equipment for example, is an important consideration and whilst the UK proposals imply that such arrangements could continue along much the same lines as present, questions remain about the extent to which this will be the case. 
  • Mutual recognition of professional qualifications: including for those working in the veterinary and agri-food sectors.  The extent to which this includes low or unskilled workers remains to be seen and is unlikely to be clarified until the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) publishes its report in September

The white paper is available via: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-future-relationship-between-the-united-kingdom-and-the-european-union

Whilst there has been a polite initial response from the EU, the proposals are likely to raise several objections from their side including:

  • Indivisibility of the Single Market:  the EU will fundamentally object to the UK wanting to remain in the Single Market for goods, without accepting the EU’s rules on freedom of capital, services and movement.  This separation, combined with the potential for divergence in areas not covered by the common rulebook, could give the UK competitive advantages in years to come and could undermine the rationale for EU membership by others.  This could potentially include the protection currently afforded by GI designations to EU-27 brands (e.g. Parmesan cheese) sold to the UK if the UK decided not to continue with existing GI legal protections.
  • Trade with non-EU countries: whilst the proposals focused heavily on tariff-free access between the UK and the EU, the UK wants to reserve its right to do free trade deals with other countries, potentially including agri-food products.  Whilst the UK’s participation in a common rulebook for agri-food trade would limit the scope for cheap imports, there is still a possibility that such trade could significantly displace EU exports to the UK, if third countries met the standards required.  This would have an onward impact on domestic prices in the EU-27.  The EU is expected to push-back strongly on this to curtail any potential displacement.
  • Complexity and cost: the UK’s proposals amount to an elaborate set of mechanisms to replicate its current access to the EU across a wide variety of areas.  To some, it is akin to the arrangements between the EU and Switzerland which Brussels is keen to rationalise.  Therefore, the EU is likely to have serious reservations about the creation of new frameworks adding yet more complexity to what is already and intricate tapestry.  There is little detail in the White Paper as to how much all of this will cost, but one can anticipate that the EU will expect the UK to bear a substantial proportion of any funding involved.

Whilst many questions remain unresolved, the UK Government’s White Paper provides a credible starting point for the substantive negotiations with the EU to take place. These need to be urgently accelerated as there is a huge amount of ground to cover between now and the autumn. For the agri-food sector, the commitment to ‘ongoing harmonisation’ via a common rulebook for agri-food trade should provide some welcome reassurance for the industry generally, particularly those which are heavily dependent on EU export markets. Furthermore, given President Trump’s claim that the UK proposals would likely ‘kill’ the prospect of the US-UK trade deal, this may also be seen as a positive by those concerned with the potential for cheaper imports to undermine UK farming. That said, a lot of uncertainty remains especially given the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

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