Trade agreements: breaking them up is hard to do

A possible trade agreement between the UK and the US has become a controversial issue in the UK elections. The Labour Party alleges that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is on the table in negotiations.  (In Northern Ireland, at least, the NHS seems to be on the floor, and in general is delivering no more than average results in European terms. Nevertheless it is much prized in the UK) . For the Conservatives, a trade agreement with the US is a big priority after Brexit. The US Secretary of State, Mr Pompeo, had earlier said that this will also be a priority for the US. The then US National Security Advisor, Mr Bolton, suggested that there could be a series of partial agreements on individual sectors. But this was a bad idea for lots of reasons. Let’s take just three of them. Firstly, no US-UK agreement, even partial, can be finalized until the nature of the future UK- EU relationship is clear, and those negotiations have not yet begun. Secondly, the tendency is always in modern economies for sectors to become more and more interrelated, and so it’s harder and harder to treat them separately. Thirdly, statisticians will recognise the related question of ” degrees of freedom”:  making a number of partial agreements ends up by putting an impossible burden of adjustment on the final sector to be negotiated.

Brexit and trade agreements for the UK

First of all,  Brexit doesn’t just mean that the UK is leaving the EU. It also means that the UK is leaving all the trade agreements that the EU made when the UK was a member, and we can assume that the UK had things to say all through those negotiations. For the partners, it’s also difficult. To understand why, think about how trade deals are negotiated. Lots of detail, industry after industry, commodity after commodity, the tariffs, the quotas, and the non-tariff measures. Tariffs are essentially taxes on the imports, and non-tariff measures are things such as technical regulations that can be used to block imports, or else impose painful testing on the imports to make sure that they conform to the rules. For the EU and its negotiating partners, a balance has to be struck, a balance between hope and fear: hope that they’ll be able to export more, fear that there’ll be more competitive imports from the other side. The important point to remember is that these agreements were based on hundreds of detailed calculations of costs and benefits, and the assumptions made on both sides were that the EU included the UK. Brexit has damaged the UK’s reputation for keeping agreements, and it has, in particular, undermined the logic of all the trade agreements that the EU has made up to now. This means that, even before the UK negotiates any new trade agreements with other parts of the world, there may already be negative perceptions of the UK on the other side.

Although the UK has managed to negotiate what are called trade continuity agreements with Switzerland, Chile, Israel, Eastern and Southern Africa, the Palestinian Authority and the Faroe Islands, it is a long way from replacing all the existing EU agreements, and even farther from more ambitious ones. Most recently, Japan was reported as being upset over the UK’s implied criticism of them for being slow in this regard. There was a suggestion that the UK saw it as a simple matter of “cutting and pasting” the existing EU-Japan agreement. (In fact “cutting and pasting” has been the general UK approach to all trade negotiations since they lack the human resources to renegotiate in detail).

As we have seen above, reaching a trade agreement requires the fine balancing of a lot of detailed considerations. For a third country, the calculations involved in reaching a deal with the UK cannot be the same as those that were involved in the negotiations with the EU. Those in the UK who supported Brexit tended to minimise the difficulties of replacing the EU’s trade agreements, and they have pointed to the possibilities of better agreements as a result of Brexit. But no such better agreements are yet in the pipeline.

A further issue is that of the UK’s future trade relations with the EU. To date there is only the “Political Declaration” which outlines in very general terms the priorities for the future. In the section on “Goods”, paragraph 20 states that “The Parties envisage having a trading relationship on goods that is as close as possible, with a view to facilitating the ease of legitimate trade”, paragraph 22 says ” the Parties envisage comprehensive arrangements that will create a free trade area…”, and paragraph 23 says “The economic partnership should ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”. Similarly, under “Services”, paragraph 29 states that “The Parties should conclude ambitious, comprehensive and balanced arrangements on trade in services and investment in services and non-services sector.” All these statements are positive, but none of them are commitments. The precise nature of the agreement that will be negotiated is not yet known. Third countries considering a trade agreement with the UK will wait until there is clarity.

Finally, consider the question of relative weights in negotiations. When the EU negotiates with most countries, it is usually the stronger partner because of its market size and economic clout. But if the UK is on its own, it is not necessarily in as strong a negotiating position. This is particularly so with regard to a proposed UK-US agreement.