'As bad deals go, the Brexit deal is pretty good' – Iain Macwhirter on the Brexit deal – HeraldScotland

Credit: Original article can be found here

Search the 1500 odd pages and annexes of the EU trade deal and there is little to justify the brutal assault on the Scottish seed potato industry.

Why have Scottish spuds been black-balled? Did Boris Johnson leave them out of the deal just so that Nicola Sturgeon would only have, er, small potatoes to complain about?

If he did then he doesn’t know Nicola Sturgeon. There is plenty in this document to complain about – notably fishing, since the industry will not get proper access for five and a half years. Mind you, if the First Minister is suggesting that the EU Common Fisheries Policy in perpetuity was better than this trade off, then she doesn’t know the fishing industry. 

There were casualties of course in this negotiation, how could there not be. The Erasmus student exchange has gone, to be replaced, we are promised, with an “Alan Turing” scheme to send students abroad. Doggy passports are history, holiday makers will have to join a different queue at airports and can only spend three months in any six when they arrive. So this will be pure hell for pet owners taking four month holidays. Science research cooperation will, however, continue under the Horizon arrangement. 

READ MORE: Post-Brexit Erasmus replacement will cost more than £100 million next year

The phone companies say they have no plans to reintroduce roaming charges. They might reconsider, but no company will be want to be the first to introduce charges abroad because they’ll lose a lot of customers. Health cooperation has yet to be decided upon, though it seems something might replace the EHIC reciprocal health scheme, perhaps along the lines if New Zealand’s ACC. Again, no European country will want to be the first to make tourists feel unwelcome. 

So most of us will hardly notice the difference after January unless we have second homes in Europe or run import/export businesses. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that we will all become poorer in the long run. We are going to become a lot poorer anyway thanks to Covid 19 lockdowns and it may be almost impossible to distinguish how much our future relative impoverishment is down to Brexit. A lot depends on how effectively businesses manage the new arrangements for ensuring fair trade.

No one has worked out yet how the complex Brexit arbitration schemes will operate, but it will undoubtedly be more difficult for some businesses to operate in Europe. There will be new checks on so-called “rules of origin”, ensuring that British firms don’t try to flood Europe with cheap goods they’ve just imported from elsewhere or have priced below the cost of production. This is called dumping. 

There will be extra health checks on food and agricultural products. It is not clear yet how financial services companies, like banks and insurance companies will operate in Europe, though many have already opened offices in the EU. Some professions, like the law, may require additional qualifications to be recognised in the EU. 

But the biggest issues have been resolved. There will be no tariffs on British goods and services, and more importantly there will be no quotas on how much the UK can sell in Europe. These are massive wins. The PM is right to say that this is better than the Canada CETA deal where many tariffs and quotas apply. 

A lot depends on whether Brussels tries to erect what are called “non-tariff barriers”. These are artificial regulatory barriers to competition by insisting, for example, that electric kettles have to have extra plugs or that car bumpers have to be a certain height, or that bananas have to have a certain curvature. These petty restrictions are already illegal under World Trade regulations and it is hard believe they will be introduced after Brexit. 

The level playing field is – if you will excuse the mixed metaphor – a two way street. Just as Britain has to observe fair trade by not dumping goods or by lowering standards, so the EU has to be very careful not to introduce unfair barriers to British goods and services. This is because the arbitration “courts” that will oversee trade are independent of the EU and the European Court of Justice. 

This is important. The EU cannot unilaterally erect “lightning” tariffs or non-tariff barriers as President Macron wanted. The EU wanted to be able to subsidise EU industries while not allowing Britain to have the same rights to support companies here, like BiFab. That has gone too. The EU lost a lot of moral capital in the negotiations by its own attempts to have its cake and eat it. 

Does it provide seamless access to the European Single Market? No it doesn’t. Britain will be a third country, outside this club that guarantees free trade in goods, services and labour. Free movement ends. EU citizenship ends. This is the biggest and riskiest step we have taken in half a century. 

READ MORE: Brexit: What is in the deal and what will change?

Nicola Sturgeon is right to say that this is “a harder Brexit than was necessary when Britain voted to leave”. But who is to blame for that? It is surely the opposition parties in Westminster, including the SNP, who failed to unite behind a soft Brexit and tried to reverse the 2016 referendum. We could have remained in the single market via the European Economic Area, like Norway, but parliament couldn’t agree on it. Ms Sturgeon wanted a Peoples Vote instead. She got it in the Tory landslide of December 2019.

So opposition politicians have little to complain about. They said they wanted a deal, and they have one. Keir Starmer has said Labour will support it. It is not a bad deal either, much better than Theresa May’s which greatly reduced UK sovereignty. 

Of course, Scotland never voted for any kind of Brexit. A majority of Scots voters now to want to restore Scottish sovereignty and leave the UK. Arguably, this deal could be the template for how Scotland trades with the UK after independence. So Nicola Sturgeon may regret dismissing it out of hand. For “third countries” this is as near to frictionless trade as it gets.