As negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU continue, there are concerns that the country may be edging dangerously close to a no-deal Brexit.
The eighth round of negotiations between the EU and the UK have ended without an agreement, in the same week that the UK unveiled its proposed Internal Market Bill.
The Northern Ireland Secretary also confirmed last week that any changes to the current UK-EU agreements would break international law.
In response to both, the EU sent officials to London to express their concern that any changes to the pre-approved treaty – the Withdrawal Agreement – may lead to a breakdown in trade talks, resulting in a no-deal Brexit.
In addition to the ongoing drama, which has attracted criticism from both sides of the political divide, the UK also signed its first free-trade agreement with Japan on Friday.
The UK Government caused a stir last week when it unveiled its proposed Internal Market Bill. Gair Rhydd’s political editors have already examined the impact of the Bill, and its complications for devolution.
The Bill would give the Government the power to “disapply” key elements of the treaty that was agreed between Boris Johnson and the EU less than a year ago.
It was later recognised by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, that moving away from the prearranged agreement with the EU would break international law, though in a very “limited and specific way”.
Not happy with this suggestion, the EU sent officials to London on Thursday, who are now demanding that changes are made “before the end of the month” or the UK risks losing out on a trade deal.
Reiterating its commitment to the treaty, the EU said afterwards that “neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard or disapply the agreement”.
In response, Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, reaffirmed that the Government will be making no effort to withdraw the bill before it is debated for the first time this week.
There are concerns from critics that the introduction of the controversial bill will affect not just the UK’s future relationship with the EU, but also other overseas nations with whom it wishes to strike free trade agreements.
Mr Johnson had previously made it clear this week that without a trade deal with the EU by October 15, the UK should walk away from negotiations, though many are now asking whether countries will trust the UK to keep its promises if it seeks to go back on the Withdrawal Agreement.
In a statement at the end of the latest round of talks, which finished on Thursday, September 10 without an agreement, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier said that “the UK has moreover not engaged on other major issues, such as credible horizontal dispute settlement mechanisms, essential safeguards for judicial cooperation and law enforcement, fisheries, or level playing field requirements in the areas of transport and energy.”
These are seen as some of the EU’s strongest red lines, especially level playing field requirements – which ensure that the UK cannot undercut the EU in areas such as workers’ rights – and therefore a lack of agreement makes a no-deal scenario at this late stage more likely.
An “historic moment” for the UK
Whilst the UK has so far been unable to strike a credible deal with the EU, Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, announced on Friday that a deal had been reached with Japan.
Announcing the free trade agreement, Truss said: “This is a historic moment for the UK and Japan as our first major post-Brexit trade deal”.
The deal with Japan is the first to be struck before the looming transition period deadline on December 31, 2020.
The EU itself already has a free trade agreement with Japan, which covered around 97% of trade between the UK and the Asian nation. The new deal will reportedly cover close to 99% of UK-Japan trade.
In all, the deal is expected to be worth around £12.5bn to the UK economy, with the Government’s analysts predicting that the deal will represent a 0.07% increase in GDP over the next 15 years.
For many, such a key moment in UK-Japan relations will provide hope that further agreements will follow. But, given the UK already had tariff-free access to Japan via. the EU’s free trade agreement, other countries may be harder to convince.
The US had already made clear that any attempt to undermine the Good Friday Agreement which is essential to peace on the island of Ireland, will mean no trade deal. Politicians in the US have seen the placement of a hard border on the island of Ireland – which is avoided with the current iteration of the Withdrawal Agreement – as a red line in their negotiating position.
It’s clear from the US’ commitment to peace in Ireland that the UK may have its work cut out if it is to negotiate new trade deals.
A bumpy road ahead?
The UK Government appears determined to forge its own path in the ongoing negotiations with the EU, even breaking international law in the process, if necessary.
It seems that the discussions around the Internal Market Bill are far from over, with MPs set to debate the Bill in the House of Commons this week. Comments from Conservative Party Lords suggest that passing the Bill may not be quite as easy as Boris Johnson might have envisaged.
Whilst progress with Japan shows that free trade agreements can and will be made, the UK may face challenges if it is to convince other overseas nations that it is willing to and capable of honouring its commitments.
There are also concerns about whether the UK can strike better deals than its European counterparts; the deal with Japan suggests that this may not always be the case.
There are now 108 days until December 31 – and just 31 until Boris Johnson’s proposed deadline of October 15 for a deal with the EU. As talks with the UK’s neighbours continue to stagnate, there are valid concerns that a no-deal Brexit will loom ever-closer, and last week’s events show that it is becoming ever-more likely.twitter Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics. Politics Morgan Perry