Friday, 31 August 2018

What Northern Ireland thinks

Northern Ireland (NI) has become the central and defining issue for Brexit. The proposed NI backstop in the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement is likely to define and constrain the UK’s future relationship with the EU, or risk separating NI from Great Britain (GB) with a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

Sadly, the NI assembly has not been sitting for over 500 days, so NI democratic consent is missing from the whole debate over the NI backstop. Given that NI democratic consent is the cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), this is tragic and potentially a danger to peace.

So we are left with opinion polling to guage NI public opinion on this matter. Polling undertaken by Queens University Belfast was forwarded to me by a Remainer / Irish nationalist. The report was highly enlightening, but perhaps not in the way the sender intended.

NI/RoI border questionnaire

Firstly, let’s take a look at the questions that were asked regarding what would be acceptable for a future NI/RoI border.

Some of these questions are seriously eyebrow raising:
  • Military personnel at customs checkpoints ?
  • Travel across NI border: Produce passports; Log travel plans in advance; Photo taken, fingerprinting at the border ? The existing Common Travel Area (CTA) arrangements will remain unchanged and there is surely no realistic prospect of such restrictions.
  • Border checks that would add 30 minutes to your journey ?  Cars are not subject to border checks in NI/RoI today despite the existing excise border & associated smuggling. The same applies to Norway & Switzerland’s border with the EU - cars are generally allowed to pass subject to occasional spot checks for excise duty.
Does anybody seriously think these scenarios are going to happen ?  This smacks of scaremongering by those conducting the survey.

NI views on border with RoI

So lets look at the responses to these questions: 

Just 15% would find ANPR/CCTV cameras along the border “almost impossible to accept”. Not quite the level of opposition often portrayed. In any case, it is widely accepted that trying to cover every one of the 300+ crossing points with cameras is impractical - so the (low) level of outright opposition is a moot point. Existing cameras on main N-S road seems not to be a problem and will obviously stay.  Adding cameras to the handful of N-S roads used by freight might help in tracking legitimate freight movements. I suspect in a few years no-one will care about a few cameras on the handful of main N-S roads carrying freight. In any case, the current thinking is to put technology inside trucks, i.e. smartphone app + GPS tracking - making the concerns RE cameras & drones redundant.

The main finding of interest is the 40% who find "checkpoints with customs officials" almost impossible to accept. No surprise that there is significant opposition to a  “hard" border. Customs processing undertaken electronically with any required consignment checks undertaken away from the border (i.e. a "soft" border) would not require manned checkpoints at the border - so would not fall foul of this opposition.

NI views on border with GB

Responses on potential outcomes for an NI-GB border are revealing.

The first question shows about a third opposed to the idea that Free Movement of EU citizens should vary between NI and GB. In practice, post-Brexit UK will likely continue to offer visa-free travel to EU citizens post-Brexit, but residency & employment rights will be subject to an independent UK regime, applying equally in  GB & NI. Regarding Irish citizens, the CTA & 1949 Ireland Act will continue to apply.

The remaining 3 questions pertain to NI being in a separate regulatory, customs or jurisdictional regime to GB:
  • More than 40% find  it “almost impossible to accept” the European Court of Justice (ECJ) having jurisdiction in NI, but not GB. This is higher than the level of opposition to "checkpoints with customs officials" on the NI/RoI border. 
  • Almost half reject a different regulatory regime for NI which leads to trade barriers with GB. 
  • Even more striking is the almost 2/3 opposition to customs duty being applied on GB-NI trade, with over 60% of catholics opposed. An Irish Sea Customs border is a complete non-starter.
These findings ought to be a killer for the EU’s proposed NI backstop. The levels of opposition to the key tenets of the backstop (ECJ, Single Market/Customs Union in goods applying to NI only) are higher (much higher in the case of an Irish Sea Customs Border) than opposition to a “hard” NI/RoI border (i.e. customs checkpoints on the border).

The report finds lower opposition to customs checks at the NI-GB border (just under 30%) compared with customs checks at the NI-RoI border (40% opposition). But there is also recognition of the importance of trade with GB (which dwarfs Trade with a RoI or the rest of the EU), notably among the Catholic & Leave communities. The NI border question encompasses economic as well as national identity questions.


While it is generally accepted that customs checkpoints on the NI/RoI border are unacceptable, it is perhaps less well understood that placing NI in a separate customs, regulatory & jurisdictional regime (as per the EU’s proposed NI backstop) is even more strongly opposed by NI public opinion.

Of course Remainers will insist that the only way to resolve these concerns is for the whole UK to stay in the Single Market & Customs Union, a.k.a. BRINO (Brexit in name only). But it should be noted that the Withdrawal Agreement commits to an NI-only backstop and provides no guarantees of a future UK-EU agreement - the implied NI-GB Border ought to make the NI backstop proposal a non-starter.

As noted in the December phase 1 progress report, the UK is committed to no “hard” border with RoI (para 43), but that cannot be at the expense of the integrity of the UK, it’s internal market or NI’s place within it (paras 44 & 45). So consistent with NI public opinion, there is a need for a “soft “ border solution, i.e. NI outside the Single Market, Customs Union & jurisdiction of the ECJ, while avoiding customs checkpoints on the border with RoI. 

A “soft” border solution should be based on cross-border co-operation and pragmatic working arrangements, brokered via N-S co-operation under the GFA (as per my recent post. A solution that covers trade in goods (agricultural & manufactured) and accounts for differing customs/tariffs regimes. My next series of posts will examine how such a “soft” border could work.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Breaking the impasse (part 3) - Respect the Good Friday Agreement

There's a lot of tosh spoken about the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), including by our own prime minister Theresa May. There is no reference to an all-island economy. There is no commitment to avoid a customs border. There is no mention of customs at all. The only commitment on borders is the removal of military installations (completed some years ago).

Principle of Consent

However, the GFA does establish the "principle of consent" for the people of Northern Ireland (NI) :
"acknowledge that while a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland, the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people;"
Some (nationalists) have argued that NI leaving the Single Market & Customs Union is a change in the status quo which breaches the principle of consent. But the actual wording in the GFA (see above) is clear that the principle of consent applies to "Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom", not to NI's status with respect to the EU or the Republic of Ireland (RoI).

The EU's current NI-only backstop proposes NI remains part of the EU's Single Market and Customs Union (for goods only) subject to ECJ jurisdiction, creating a customs, regulatory and jurisdictional border with Great Britain (GB). This clearly separates NI from GB in order to facilitate close ties with RoI. While this is not a full constitutional sundering of NI from GB, it is an obvious weakening of NI's place in the United Kingdom and its internal market, which ought to require the consent of an NI majority.

No Deal, No Hard Border

So the GFA does not prohibit a "hard" NI/RoI customs border, nor would the GFA principle of consent (of NI majority) apply to such a border. Nonetheless, all parties see the sense in avoiding a hard NI/RoI customs border.

The UK Government has steadfastly insisted it will not install infrastructure to create a hard border under any circumstances. It has been recently reported that "a working group of senior UK government officials is being convened to devise ways to keep the Irish border free of customs checks and police even if there’s no withdrawal agreement". EU President Juncker & Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have both confirmed that in a "No Deal" scenario, there would be "no physical infrastructure and customs checks on the Border". So even in a No Deal scenario, no-one is going to erect a hard border.

So how would "No Deal, No Hard Border" work ? Quite simply, both sides will collect tariffs/duties and apply customs controls away from the border:
  • Importers will be audited and required to submit regular accounts of trade (as they are today for VAT-based INTRASTAT returns used to collect intra-EU trade statistics)
  • Market surveillance will check goods placed on the market for regulatory compliance. Even today there is regulatory divergence between North and South where UK specifies more stringent safety tests on top of EU's harmonised CE standards (e.g. fireworks, sofas etc), meaning some products that are legal in the South may be illegal to market in the North.
  • Intelligence-led customs/police interventions will target contraband and counterfeits (as per today) and sources of non-compliant goods.
The GFA emphasises and promotes cross-border co-operation between the two jurisdictions (emphasising that there is a North-South jurisdictional border). Specifically, the GFA establishes a North-South ministerial council with designated areas of co-operation. Building on existing strong cross-border co-operation will be crucial to achieving "No Hard Border":
  • Sanitary & Phyto-Sanitary (SPS), i.e .animal and plant health, is already designated as an area of co-operation under the North-South ministerial council and could provide the basis for an all-Ireland SPS inspection regime. 
  • Co-operation on market surveillance (spot checks on goods on the market for regulatory compliance) is currently covered via membership of the Single Market, but post-Brexit should be covered under GFA cross-border co-operation.
  • Joint police/customs interventions are undertaken today against smuggling (contraband, counterfeits, avoiding excise duty etc.). 
GFA as basis for NI customs border agreement

If there is to be an agreement on the NI customs border, it seems logical to establish a North-South customs border management body, building on existing cross-border co-operation. This body would be democratically accountable to the two political jurisdictions (North and South), using existing political infrastructures, i.e. the North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council established under the GFA.

Incorporating an NI/RoI customs border agreement into the GFA would also bring other benefits :
  • WTO will be able to recognise the politically sensitive NI/RoI border as an exception to WTO MFN non-discrimination (which might otherwise require the EU and UK to keep all their borders as open as NI/RoI "No Hard Border"). 
  • Most importantly, the principle of NI consent becomes central. NI could voluntarily choose to align with RoI in the interests of "No Hard Border", or NI could choose to decline such alignment, if the result is an NI-GB hard border that significantly impacts trade.
The UK should support NI in whatever arrangements it chooses to make with RoI, for example if NI consents to "technical checks" on goods crossing the Irish Sea in order to facilitate "No Hard  Border" with RoI. NI goods could still enter GB without checks on the basis that UK Government trusts its own (NI) inspectors (both market surveillance and SPS). In fact, as a "cherry-on-top", GB could offer to accept RoI goods without checks, by virtue of UK (NI) inspectors involvement in North-South border management bodies. Such an offer would be on the express understanding that it does not extend to EU-26 goods.

The EU should also regard the NI border as an exception, delegating control fully to RoI with freedom to make arrangements via GFA institutions/bodies to achieve "No Hard Border". Provided such arrangements prove sufficiently robust, the EU should leave customs border arrangements to the players on the ground rather than insist on a rigid application of EU customs law. As a safeguard, the EU could impose "technical checks" on goods crossing the Celtic Sea (i.e. between RoI and France/EU-26), if any concerns arise and persist over integrity Single Market / Customs Union integrity.

The EU should also allow RoI to recognise NI as "equivalent" with RoI via North-South border management bodies, which would allow NI manufacturers and economic operators (in aligned sectors) to be recognised as operating within the single market. The Swiss are recognised as equivalent in much the same way via EU-Swiss joint committee - without requiring direct application of EU law or ECJ jurisdiction. Such an offer would be on the express understanding that such equivalence does not extend to GB manufacturers and economic operators.

The major hurdle to this approach is the current suspension of Stormont and power sharing arrangements. The opportunity to shape the debate around the future border arrangements should be incentive to resume Stormont's government. At the very least, Stormont should be convened for the specific purpose of addressing the customs border and/or a North-South border management body should be instituted. Any parties unwilling to participate would sacrifice the right to a voice.


Despite the tosh spoken about the GFA, it is the EU's NI-only backstop proposal which threatens the status of NI within the United Kingdom and its internal market and so threatens the GFA settlement. No self-respecting UK Government should even contemplate signing the Withdrawal Agreement while it mandates economic and judicial borders within the UK.

In fact, the GFA does not mandate "No Hard Border" for NI/RoI. However, via the GFA, NI consent can be expressed and cross-border co-operation enhanced to manage a "soft" NI/RoI border. The withdrawal agreement should be revised to put the GFA and NI consent front and central.

In short, instead of weaponising the GFA and the NI customs border issue, it's high time politicians respected the GFA and built an NI customs border solution based on it.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Breaking the impasse (part 2) - Ditch the Common Rule Book

The Brexit negotiations appear stalled, with much confusion over the issue of alignment with EU rules and a proposed Common Rule Book. Michel Barnier has consistently made clear the choice facing the UK: we can either be inside the single market and follow all the rules, without dividing the 4 freedoms, so including free movement of people (i.e. Norway), or we can be outside the single market and free from the obligations of the single market (i.e. Canada).

A pre-requisite for Single Market participation is adopting the EU's Single Market Rule Book, or EEA acquis. Theresa May's proposed Common Rule Book is in reality the EEA acquis, minus some elements (services, free movement of people) that she hopes to exclude. Ultimately, the EU will insist on all the rules being included. It is also clear that in seeking a Common Rule Book, May is negotiating to stay in the Single Market, despite her repeated promises to the contrary. If we simply wish to trade with the Single Market, as per Canada, a Common Rule book is not required.

The leaked DExEU alternative proposes broad regulatory equivalence as an alternative to Single Market harmonisation and Common Rule Book, based heavily on the Swiss model. However, the EU have repeatedly stated they regret agreeing the Swiss model (agreed as an EEA alternative while the Swiss application for EU membership still stood) and the EU will not offer this model to anyone else, least of all a departing UK. In any case, the EU's measure of equivalence is barely distinguishable from full harmonisation. The Conservative Brexiteers have gone up a blind alley with this approach.

The main trade gain comes from using common standards. A UK product designed, manufactured & tested to harmonised European CE standards for the UK market can also be marketed in the EU/EEA  market without needing a separate design, manufacturing or assessment process. But of course, an independent UK can voluntarily choose to recognise and use harmonised European CE standards, without membership of the Single Market.

So the question arises - what are the gains from a Common Rule Book / Single Market membership  over and above the use of common standards ? Does being outside the Single Market for goods mean other expensive or insurmountable barriers to trade ? I'll try to answer that question with an overview of the impact of leaving the Single Market on UK goods.

Manufactured Goods - Conformity Assessment

As I described in a previous blog, all manufactured products conforming to EU harmonised CE standards are afforded "presumption of conformity" by EU legislation, whether the manufacturer is based in EU/EEA or third country outside the single market.

For the vast majority (~95%) of manufactured products covered by EU  harmonised regulations, the manufacturer certifies the product, issues a Declaration of Conformity (DOC) & affixes the CE label. A minority (~5%) require certification by an independent EU/EEA based Certification Assessment Body (CAB). The mitigation for this is straightforward:
● UKAS (UK Accreditation Service) is applying to retain membership of  EA (European Accreditation), so that UKAS accreditation will continue to be recognised by the EU.
● A Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) on Conformity Assessment would allow UK based CAB's and their certificates to be recognised by the EU (and vice-versa).
● In any case, UK-based CABs can use subsidiary/subcontract relationships with an EU-based CAB to allow their certificates to be recognised in the EU/EEA (and vice-versa).

The primary difference for third country manufacturers is the need to use an EU/EEA-based importer - who holds the declarations of conformity / technical file and acts as a contact point - but is not responsible for conformity assessment. Companies who have a subsidiary, office or even an individual based in the EU/EEA can act as their own importer. The end customer can act as importer. Shipping/Warehousing companies, agents etc. all offer importer services. It's not onerous.

Outside the Single Market, goods will become subject to regulatory checks at the border. Checks are determined on the basis of risk assessment, and even today EU-UK trade is subject to risk assessment and checks for contraband and counterfeits. Overall rates are low (just 1% of third country goods entering RoI are subject to checks) mostly checking paperwork or container seals / labels - only a very small number of consignments are subject to opening and physical inspection. Attention is focused on known sources of risk, e.g. counterfeit goods from the Far East. Non-compliance with standards is mostly identified via market surveillance (not at the border), which then feeds back as intelligence into customs risk assessment for future consignments.  The risk of increased border checks for regulatory non-compliance (as opposed to deliberate counterfeits and fraud, which is already checked today) is negligible, especially for established and trusted traders.

Highly Regulated Sectors.

Some sectors are more highly regulated, requiring product pre-approval via an EU agency. In her Mansion House speech, Prime Minister Theresa May identified 3 such key sectors : Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, Aviation.

In the Chemicals & Pharmaceuticals sectors, the impact of leaving the single market is transferring approvals/authorisations to an EU/EEA based agency via an EU/EEA based individual (while manufacturing can remain in the UK) e.g.
●REACH registrations via an "Only Representative"
●BPR (Biocidals) product authorisations via an "Authorisation Holder"
●BPR (Biocidals) product suppliers via a "Representative"
●Pharamaceutical products via a "marketing authorisation holder"
Pharmacovigilance (batch quality control and monitoring of pharmaceuticals for adverse affects) via a "Qualified Person for Pharmacovigilance" (QPPV)

Standard third country MRAs (as enjoyed by Swiss, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan etc) can mitigate barriers in Chemical & Pharmaceutical sectors:
● MRA on Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) would allow Pharamacovigilance to be undertaken in the UK territory and simply signed off by the EU/EEA-based QPPV (and vice versa) - waiving re-testing of products on import.
● MRA on Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) would allow mutual acceptance of data generated in the testing of chemicals, which means approvals in both regimes can refer to the same lab tests.

In the aviation sector the EU Parliament Proposal (paras 31 & 32) exhibits a strong desire for a bi-lateral agreement on air transport and aviation safety, "in the interest of the passengers, air carriers, manufacturers and workers' unions", based on "similar agreements with other third
countries". The UK would need to adopt EU aviation safety law & ECJ rulings (as for example Turkey's "working agreement"). UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) would then retain the right to issue EASA certifications of air-worthiness. Swiss-style observer status at EASA may also be a possibility. In time, CAA will recover capacity and a mutual recognition agreement with EU may then be more appropriate (as per USA, Canada).

Car industry

The Car industry is also a vital sector where product pre-approval applies. The UK's Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) issues whole car type approvals which allow a model to be marketed throughout the Single Market

EU vehicle regulations are increasingly driven via UNECE WP.29, an international forum for harmonisation of automobile regulations. UN International regulations annexed to the UNECE 1958 Agreement provide mutual recognition of car component type approvals (even without any UK-EU agreement). UN Global Technical Regulations annexed to the 1998 agreement allow mutual recognition of regulatory equivalence for car components (included in EU's Free Trade Agreements  (FTAs) with Korea, Japan & Canada). This removes regulatory barriers for car components (where covered by UNECE regulations), and UNECE approvals can substitute for elements of the EU's whole car type approval.

What is missing is the continued recognition of VCA's whole car type approval outside the single market. Is there scope for a form of "working agreement" (as per the aviation sector) to allow VCA to continue issuing EU recognised whole car type approvals ? I think so:
● EU has tabled regulatory co-operation on vehicles for talks on the future trade agreement.
● Korea, Canada, Japan do not have national bodies for vehicle certification in any case. Whereas the Swiss do and the EU-Swiss MRA provides for mutual recognition of whole car type approvals in return for adoption of relevant EU regulations.
● At EU's behest, UNECE is developing Regulation 0 to provide for international whole car type approval. So EU is already actively planning to extend mutual recognition of approvals beyond the EU/single market.
● UK's VCA has also issued approvals for some EU and third country car manufacturers. Why should they be punished and denied EU market access ?
● UK's VCA would need to continue commitment to UNECE WP.29 and adopt EU regulations / ECJ rulings where UNECE has not (yet) legislated. In time UNECE regulations (including Regulation 0 on whole car type approval) will replace all EU car regulations.
● UK exports 800k cars to EU but imports 2.3 million from EU every year. Who loses by erecting a huge trade barrier in this sector ?


EU Sanitary & Phytosanitary (SPS) regulations provide a very high barrier to agricultural trade for third countries outside the Single Market. Third country meat/dairy imports face veterinary checks at Border Inspection Posts: 100% documentary/identity checks; varying percentages for physical inspections (50% for some products).  EU agricultural equivalence agreements with third countries allow for lower rates of physical inspections  (e.g. Canada 10%, New Zealand 2%).  The Swiss have harmonised their SPS regulations with the EU and are deemed to be part of the EU/EEA SPS regime, with no border checks required for Swiss-EU/EEA trade.

The EU's SPS regulations are particularly protectionist. They require UK to apply the same protectionist measures to third countries (as discussed in a previous blog here), ruling out FTAs with USA (chicken etc), India (Basmati rice etc), Liam Fox's hope of joining the TPP and a host of others. Scientific research & development in GMO is blocked. A WTO ruling/fine against the EU's ban on Canadian beef will be served on the UK if we keep EU SPS rules after leaving the EU. We are currently a captive customer for EU agricultural products, with a 3:1 trade deficit.

It is clear to me that we will be much better served leaving the EU's SPS regime. UK-EU trade will face border veterinary inspections in both directions, so UK meat/dairy exports to EU would be diverted to the domestic market. We can quickly strike agricultural equivalence & Tariff Quota agreements w/ Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Commonwealth states, South  America etc - removing tariff and non-tariff barriers to these alternate (and generally lower priced) non-EU suppliers. Subsidies (Green-box etc) & use of quotas should be deployed to protect the UK meat/dairy sector through a transition. But ultimately, we will end up in a much better place and secure more trade globally on the back of it.


In the manufacturing sector, there will be some relocation of individuals/roles to fulfill the requirement for an EU/EEA based importer/representative, but some EU/EEA individuals/roles will also relocate to the UK - a one-off adjustment but not a long term issue. The risk of extra border checks for regulatory compliance is negligible. Breaching the EU law/ECJ red line in the car & aviation sectors is a small price to pay and in time the need for EU jurisdiction in these sectors will pass. In the agriculture sector, there is a clear case for breaking free from the EU's protectionist SPS rules in the interests of consumers and greater trade opportunities globally.

We are likely to broadly continue using harmonised European CE standards in any case, so reaping the benefit of a single design, manufacturing & assessment process for both UK & EU markets. But outside the Single Market, we are free to diverge as and when it makes sense to do so - in full consideration of the interests of our domestic economy and global trade. We would also be free from the EU's indivisible 4 freedoms and free movement of people. This would make negotiaing and maintaing a new relationship much easier and cleaner. In short, we should ditch the Common Rule Book and become a fully independent and sovereign third country - like Canada.

The fly in this ointment is the NI border, which I will look at in my next blog.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Breaking the impasse (part 1) - Backstop as a Stopgap

The Brexit negotiations appear stalled, stuck on the thorny question of the Irish border. The EU and UK are at loggerheads over the EU's current backstop proposal, which even the supine Mrs May said "No UK prime minister could ever agree", and there appears to be no agreement in sight.

However, my reading of the  Phase 1 Agreement and NI Protocol in the Draft Withdrawl Agreement suggests that the EU has  already (if unwittingly) agreed to a backstop that is: (1) UK-wide, (2) Cherry-picked, i.e. covers free movement of goods only (excludes services) ; (3) excludes EU free movement of people, (4) temporary until a "soft" border solution is implemented. In other words, the backstop provides a UK-wide stopgap to a full agreement and solution.

Firstly, let's consider the general commitments made by the UK regarding NI in the Phase 1 Agreement:
  1. Avoid a "hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls" (para 43). Not, as commonly mis-reported, a commitment to no border. There are already checks required today against counterfeits, contraband and to police the existing excise border. The logical interpretation is that controls or checks will be undertaken away from the geographical NI-RoI border.
  2. Protect "the integrity of the UK internal market and Northern Ireland's place within it" (para 45). The same paragraph also confirms that the "UK leaves  the  European  Union's  Internal  Market and Customs Union" - emphasising again that the UK commitment is simply to avoid a hard border, not avoid any border at all.
  3. Preserve the 1998 Belfast / Good Friday agreement, especially North-South & East-West co-operation (para 48). Note that:
  • The 1998 agreement quite explicitly clearly refers to two distinct jurisdictions (each side to remain accountable to the Assembly and Oireachtas respectively). Cross-border co-operation exists precisely because there are two distinct jurisdictions, each with their own legal and constitutional order. The 1998 agreement neither creates nor requires a single all-Ireland jurisdiction.
  • Contrary to much uninformed commentary, the 1998 Agreement says nothing about customs borders. It refers to borders only in the context of removing military & security infrastructure, which is not going to be reinstated due to any future trading relations.
Secondly, let's consider the specific commitments made regarding a backstop in the Phase 1 Agreement, which is intended to deliver the above general commitments in the absence of any other agreed solutions with the EU:
  1.  "UK will maintain full alignment" (para 49) - the backstop does not just apply to, or for, Northern Ireland - the whole UK is encompassed.
  2.  "with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union ..." - i.e. not all rules. The backstop is clearly based on "cherry-picking".
  3. "The UK will ensure that no  new  regulatory  barriers  develop  between  NI and  the  rest  of  the  UK, unless ...  the  NI   Executive   and   Assembly   agree   that   distinct arrangements  are  appropriate  for  NI." The backstop must not create any new barriers to GB-NI trade and cannot imply an Irish Sea border, unless NI voluntarily decides to diverge from GB.
Thirdly, let's consider what are the selective " rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union" that apply to the backstop ?  The NI Protocol in Draft Withdrawl Agreement  (chapter III) defines a common regulatory area:
  1. Article 4, covering Free Movement of Goods implies being inside the EU's Customs Union. References to  Regulation (EU) No 952/2013 require : Common Customs Tariff (i.e. Common External Tariff and preferential rates of EU's FTA's) must be applied to imports; ports will be subject to EU customs law and oversight.
  2. The section on free movement of goods also includes EU laws on goods, agriculture & fisheries, single electricity market, environment, North-South co-operation, State Aid.
  3.  Article 8 lists the areas of North-south co-operation as:  environment, health, agriculture, transport, education & tourism, as well as energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice & security, higher education & sport. In other words many of the areas are not covered by EU laws on trade or are outside EU competence.
  4. Article 2 covers free movement of people, which refers to the UK/RoI Common Travel Area (CTA) and not to EU's rules on free movement.
  5.  Article 11 states the "Court of Justice of the European Union shall have jurisdiction".
It should be noted that much of the Draft NI Protocol is in un-highlighted text (indicating it is not yet agreed by UK and EU) most notably the jurisdiction of Court of Justice of the European Union. The only items highlighted in green (indicating UK & EU agreement) are Free movement of people (via CTA) and North-south co-operation. The State Aid clause is highlighted in yellow (indicating UK & EU agreement in principle). Nonetheless, the Draft NI protocol clearly outlines a single market and customs union in goods only, without EU free movement of people (agreed as covered by continuation of the Common Travel Area (CTA)).

Fourthly, let us consider how the Phase 1 Agreement and Draft NI Protocol make clear that the backstop is not meant to be a permanent arrangement:
  1.  Phase 1 agreement para 46 states that commitments made for the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the EU-UK future relationship.
  2. Phase 1 agreement para 49 states the UK intention to address unique circumstances of Ireland via the overall UK-EU FTA, or via solutions specific to the island of Ireland - with the backstop only applying if no solutions have been agreed
  3. NI protocol article 15 states that the protocol (including backstop) will cease to apply if a subsequent UK-EU agreement addresses the unique circumstances in Ireland.
Given the  Phase 1 Agreement calls for (i) UK-wide "full alignment" and (ii) commitment to integrity of UK internal market (and NI's place within it) - the logical interpretation is that the EU have signed up to a UK-wide goods-only backstop without EU freedom of movement, that is only temporary in application. The EU may not like the implications of what they have agreed, but if they renege on their commitments to date, then what chance is there we can reach any kind of workable agreement ?

The current impasse has arisen because the EU insist the backstop can only apply to NI (which contradicts the phase 1 agreement) and because they show no interest in addressing the NI border issues via a UK-EU FTA or specific solutions (in effect they want and expect their version of the backstop to be permanent). At the same time, the EU believe (not without foundation) that the UK Government are trying to leverage the NI border issue to gain a permanent UK-wide Swiss-style regulatory equivalence and customs alignment deal. While such an outcome may be sought by the likes of Philip Hammond, it is not acceptable to Leavers, Re-Leavers, or the EU.

It seems to me that the only way out of this impasse is for both sides to agree a backstop that is temporary - essentially a stopgap - to allow time to implement a permanent "soft" border solution for the NI border. Such a stopgap will also allow businesses & customs authorities in both UK and EU to fully prepare for UK outside the Single Market & Customs Union. The stopgap arrangement should be written into the Withdrawl Agreement in unambiguous terms:
  1. Stopgap agreement should be unpalatable in equal measures to both sides. That way both sides have an incentive to move on from the stopgap to a full and final agreement. 
  2. The UK could concede on ECJ jurisdiction and some continuing payments for the period of the stopgap.
  3. The EU should concede on a UK-wide goods-only arrangement without EU's Free Movement of People rules for the period of the stopgap - as per what has been agreed already in Phase 1 and Draft Withdrawl treaty. The UK government should stand firm on free movement, despite hints May would like to compromise on this.
  4. A definition of (including proposed timescales) and commitment to a "soft" border solution in NI, together with a break or sunset clause so that the stopgap does not simply extend forever.
It is now crucial that all parties consider and agree how an overall UK-EU FTA and special solutions for Ireland can provide a "soft" border solution for Ireland. As you may expect, I have some thoughts on how these arrangements may work - but that is a topic for another post.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

A Brexit Turkey (part 3) - Customs Union is not a Brexit solution

Some bad ideas seem reluctant to die. The Institute of Directors (IoD) have published a "partial" Customs Union proposal (based on Turkey's Customs Union agreement with the EU), primarily to eliminate preferential Rules of Origin (RoO) in UK-EU trade.

In my previous post, I discussed how  preferential RoO are far from insurmountable. How significant are the costs associated with preferential RoO ? Open Europe assumed leaving the EU Customs Union would add 4% to cost of trade transactions (RoO costs & customs admin) leading to a 1% loss of GDP. Other studies suggest RoO adding less than 2% to transaction costs. One detailed study suggests RoO is a one-time cost that does not increase with increased volume of transactions.

A Customs Union seems a very blunt instrument to use, especially as trade with 3rd countries would still be subject to RoO. Are there other ways to address this issue ?

Rule of Origin Solutions

Blockchain technology has been touted as a way to simplify the administration & auditing of complex supply chains, hence minimising RoO administration costs. However, as promising as this technology may appear, we are probably a decade away from fulfilling this potential.

recent paper examined preferential RoO for the Food & Drink Federation, a sector which makes particular use of global supply chains:
- Five case studies are examined, identifying challenges provided by use of non-local content in qualifying for tariff-free trade via preferential RoO.
- Both Pan-European Mediterranean (PEM) RoO and CETA RoO are compared for each case.
- The first case study is UK wholemeal bread, which uses flour milled in the UK from grains sourced from UK, US and Canada: PEM RoO require grains to be sourced entirely locally;  CETA RoO limits non-local grains to 20% by weight of final product. Otherwise the EU tariff of 9% would be payable on exports to the EU.

Some context is required here: 
- Bread is primarily produced and consumed locally: 85% of wheat used by UK flour millers is home-grown, with most of the imports from Canada; UK domestic sales amount to £3.5bn per annum ("Bakery & Snacks"). 
- By contrast, UK bread exports to the EU amounted to just £87.5m for the first 9 months of 2016, i.e. ~£117m per annum ("BakeryInfo"). 
- The UK runs a massive trade deficit with the EU across the whole food and drink sector (Food & Drink Federation statistics).

The Food & Drink Federation paper makes a number of suggestions for addressing these RoO issues, which could also apply to others sectors:
- Allow 10% non-originating product content without losing originating status (already provided in PEM RoO, under article 5.2 (a) );
- Full bi-lateral cumulation in EU-UK trade so that EU content counts as local in UK exports to EU and vice versa - almost certain to be part of an UK-EU FTA;
- Full diagonal cumulation with EU FTAs, e.g. so that UK, EU and Canada can count each other's content as local in trade between themselves;
- Exempt Least Developed Country (LDC) origin content in UK-EU trade so that LDC content counts as local
- Exempt products / content where EU & UK have same MFN tariffs. i.e. count products as local where there is no risk of trade diversion arising from different MFN tariffs - a form of halfway house to the UK governments customs partnership concept);
- Allow origin to be determined on final value OR weight criteria (protects products where local processing adds high vale to a premium product);
- Simplify RoO documentation.
Another approach would be to abandon preferential RoO in favour of simpler non-preferential / Most Favoured Nation (MFN) RoO (as suggested by Hosuk Lee-Makiyama). Non-preferntial RoO typically determines origin on the simple basis of where last substantive processing was performed, rather than where inputs are sourced :
"... the world trading system could do without preferential rules of origin. Preferences can be granted on the basis of most favoured nation (MFN) rules of origin anyway. Empirical literature suggests that, if the purpose for enacting preferential rules of origin was to facilitate commerce or promote inward investment, then their implementation has in practice defeated the purpose. Beneficiaries of preferences often prefer to trade using MFN rules of origin, rather than going though cumbersome procedures to show that they can ‘benefit’ from preferential rules. Thus, in the end, preferential rules of origin are neither necessary for preferences to be granted, nor have they facilitated trade or investment. Our policy recommendation for the negotiators of the Harmonized Working Programme (HWP), which aims to establish common rules of origin for all WTO members, is to also decide to outlaw preferential rules of origin. "   Abstract from "The case for dropping preferential rules of origin" by Edwin Vermulst and P. Mavroidis 
Adopting amended or simplified RoO for UK-EU trade will of course be entirely dependent on EU agreement, which may not be forthcoming. Is there perhaps a more simple and radical way to avoid preferential RoO ?
- IoD's contention is that (i) preferential RoO is a significant trade barrier (ii) tariffs on manufactured products and processed foods are in any case low - so low that they offer no leverage in securing trade agreements with third countries.
- This actually chimes with arguments for "Unilateral Free Trade" as proposed by Economists for Britain, who argue that we should ignore preferential FTAs and instead unilaterally lower tariffs - favouring UK consumer interests (including  manufacturers sourcing inputs) over producer interests. Preferential RoO is removed as a consideration for all imports and exports. Attention can then be focused on removing regulatory / technical barriers to trade.
- Unilateral Free Trade offers a way to eliminate preferential RoO, without requiring EU agreement. If as IoD and others argue, tariffs are sufficiently low to not be an issue, why chase preferential trade deals - even with the EU ?

Partial Customs Union & Irish border 

IoD claim that a partial Customs Union like Turkey's would help alleviate issues with the Irish land border. But Turkish experience does not support this argument, with long lorry queues at the Turkey-Bulgaria border. A number of issues arise:
- Basic agricultural goods are excluded from the Turkish Customs Union and require full customs clearance is still required for these goods. Meat / dairy constitutes a significant portion of UK / RoI trade.
- An A.TR movement form must be presented at the Turkey-EU border, declaring all customs formalities have already been completed.
- Turkey is outside the EU's VAT union, so import VAT is also payable at the border. Does the IOD intend for UK to remain in the EU's VAT union as well ? (meaning UK could not cancel the "tampon tax" or eliminate VAT on household energy bills for example).

    The IoD's proposed "partial" Customs Union would not remove the need for a customs border.

    The IoD's argument for "partial" Customs Union rests entirely on RoO. RoO does not provide an insurmountable barrier. RoO administrative costs are subject to debate, appear low and may be negligible beyond an initial cost.

    A "partial" Customs Union would only avoid RoO for trade with the EU - any preferential trade with third countries (including other European countries such as EFTA  members) would still require preferential RoO.

    A "partial" Customs Union would not allow an independent UK trade policy, and will keep the UK tied into an EU-centric trade policy. This is counter to UK's strategic interests. The UK runs a huge trade deficit with the EU, whereas UK trade with the Rest of the World is broadly in balance. UK exports to the Rest of the World have grown and overtaken UK exports to the EU, mirroring the EU's diminishing share of global GDP.

    There are other ways to mitigate the impact of RoO. The worst case is that some supply chains may be repatriated to the UK - given the huge trade deficit the UK has with the EU, this may be no bad thing.

    Ironically,  Unilateral Free Trade offers a way to eliminate preferential RoO, without requiring EU agreement. If as IoD and others argue, tariffs are sufficiently low to not to be an issue, why chase preferential trade deals - even with the EU ? Perhaps a hybrid solution could be adopted - eliminate tariffs where UK has no domestic industry to protect (e.g. tropical fruits !) and also for inputs to manufacturing (e.g. car parts would be zero-rated), but retain higher-rated EU tariffs for key sectors / finished products to use as leverage in trade agreements (e.g. retain 10% tariff on finished cars, ~40% tariffs for meat etc.). The UK could then seek to negotiate FTA's to eliminate these high rated tariffs using non-preferential / MFN RoO.

    In short, we should reject  the IoD's proposal to keep the UK locked into a 19th century Zollverein Customs Union, designed primarily to promote European political integration. As Brexit solutions go, the IoD's proposal is a real turkey.


    Posts in this series:

    Sunday, 25 February 2018

    A Brexit Turkey (part 2) - Are Rules of Origin insurmountable ?

    Some bad ideas seem reluctant to die. The Institute of Directors (IoD) have published a Customs Union proposal (based on Turkey's Customs Union agreement with the EU), which as discussed in my last post, would result in the UK having no control over tariffs or Free Trade agreements (FTAs).

    Rules of Origin (RoO)

    So what is IoD's argument for a Customs Union ? Essentially it comes down to preferential RoO (Rules of Origin). Outside the Customs Union, assuming an FTA is agreed with the EU, UK exporters will be required to prove goods are substantially sourced or manufactured locally in order to qualify for preferential tariffs (so importing a product from a third country like China and sticking a UK badge on it does not qualify for preferential tariffs !).

    The IOD suggest that many exporters fail to take advantage of preferential rates in FTAs, deterred by the cost/complexity of preferential RoO. To avoid the complexity, they simply pay the tariff. The inference is that a UK-EU FTA would see companies failing to utilise the FTA and incurring tariffs - a problem avoided by a customs union with the EU.

    However there are plenty of grounds for questioning this rather simplistic narrative:
    • IOD cite a literature review of RoO and utilisation of FTAs. However the review itself contains statements such as “Research on RoO, however, is in its infancy “ ... “studies on FTA usage are very limited in scope" etc.  
    • IOD cite a survey of their own members suggesting low use of preferential rates in third country FTAs. But a recent report on utilisation of EU FTAs published by UNCTAD found utilisation at 66% by EU member states and 90% by third countries exporting to the EU market. 
    • Commenting on the UNCTAD report, Lucian Cernat (Chief Economist, DG Trade European Commission) suggested information / assistance to SMEs would help EU exporters better utilise FTAs. This echoes UK research by Peter Holmes & Nick Jacob (Sussex University) finding "a substantial minority of firms are unsure of how RoOs work and the options available to firms for compliance."
    • IOD cite an EU assessment of Turkeys CU stating the following RE costs of RoO:  "Based on empirical evidence that third country exports still use preferences even when EU duties are low (in the range of 2% to 3%), it has been decided to retain a conservative cost of 2%". 
    • The research by Holmes & Jacob also suggests that cost of compliance with preferential RoO was not as costly as previously thought, with much of the cost being an up-front investment to upgrade/set up systems.
    RoO & Car Industry

    IOD raises concerns for the car industry, quoting Japan's message to the UK & EU"the introduction of inconvenient rules of origin could delay and increase the costs of logistics operations, which would have a significant impact on business operations".

    Even from this snippet, it is plain to see that Japan's concern is with logistics and speed through customs clearance, rather than the cost of RoO compliance. This is even clearer when the full context is examined, where Japan requests that the UK & EU "maintain the simplified customs clearance procedures between the UK and EU, especially the framework for the mutual recognition of AEOs ... Changes in customs clearance procedures for exports to the UK and the application of complicated procedures due to the introduction of inconvenient rules of origin could delay and increase the costs of logistics operations".

    Japan also raise the issue of achieving RoO content thresholds when supply chains are distributed across the EU. They request that cumulative RoO apply in future UK-EU27 trade, which means components/processing sourced from either the UK or EU-27 count as "local" in the RoO determination - such "bi-lateral cumulation" is standard practice in FTAs. The fact that Japan raises cumulation indicates they are not requesting or expecting a future UK-EU customs union.

    RoO & Chemicals Industry

    IOD also raise concerns over the impact of RoO on the UK chemicals industry. Steve Elliott, Chief Executive Officer, Chemical Industries Association, in evidence to a House of Lords Committee described RoO as : “a substantial level of bureaucracy ...  in our case there could be several stages of synthesis involved … would clearly outweigh the benefit of duty-free sales”. (Tariffs for chemicals are typically around 6%).

    The EU, EFTA and various other Balkan, African and Middle-Eastern states are signed up to Pan-Euro-Mediterranean (PEM) preferential rules of origin, which state that :
    • Chemical products (Harmonised System chapters 28-38) are "sufficiently processed" to qualify as local origin if non-local content is below a given threshold (varies by material but typically 40% or lower of product value). 
    • Products incorporating non-local content that have been "sufficiently processed" count as 100% local when subsequently used as input to manufacturing another product. 
    • PEM rules also allow for "Accounting Segregation" to cater for use of interchangeable stocks of local and non-local material as input in manufacturing a product.
    75% of UK chemical imports are from the EU, suggesting that most inputs to UK chemical manufacturing will be of UK or EU origin, hence qualifying as local origin under bi-lateral cumulation as part of an EU-UK FTA. UK chemical products will likely meet the RoO threshold to qualify for preferential rates.

    So determining whether a product qualifies as local origin depends on knowing the source and cost of inputs to the manufacturing process - i.e. the core business processes of supply chain management and accounting. Where non-originating materials are used in the chemical industry, they would have to be tracked through several stages of processing - but tracking & auditing use of materials in the manufacturing process is surely standard practice ?

    60% of UK chemical exports are to the EU. Hence 40% are to the rest of the world - is none of this via preferential RoO ? Switzerland has an FTA with the EU and is a non-EU destination for UK chemical exports - is no advantage taken at all of preferential rates ? It is also worth noting that Switzerland has a successful chemical / pharmaceutical industry (larger than the UK's) integrated into European supply chains - despite the fact that Switzerland is outside the EU Customs Union and so faces preferential RoO barriers.

    It is hard to believe that the UK chemical industry makes no use of preferential RoO or is incapable of doing so. If third countries like Switzerland make use of preferential RoO for chemicals, then the UK chemical industry should take a leaf out of their book, make a one-off investment to upgrade systems to cater for RoO in order to utilise current third country FTAs as well as a future UK-EU FTA.


    The argument that low FTA utilisation proves RoO is too burdensome is contradicted by the high utilisation reported by UNCTAD, and observations by Holmes/Jacob and Cernat that advice / information on RoO would boost exporters use of FTAs.

    Indeed, IOD themselves state: "Rules of origin are not insurmountable for business – indeed they currently apply to trade with a number of existing countries outside the EU." If companies invest in systems to provide RoO compliance for third country FTAs (an increasing proportion of UK exports), then RoO compliance for EU trade is a relatively small additional step.

    A customs union with the EU cannot be justified by RoO. I will examine alternative arguments and alternative options to a Customs Union in my next post.

    Friday, 23 February 2018

    A Brexit Turkey (part 1) - No UK Trade Policy

    Some bad ideas seem reluctant to die. Leaving the EU Customs Union has been stated government policy since Theresa May's Lancaster House speech, confirmed by the 2017 General Election manifestos and several parliamentary votes. Earlier this month, Theresa May again confirmed that the UK would not be part of any Customs Union with the EU after Brexit. Yet now we have the Institute of Directors (IoD) putting out a report with yet another Customs Union proposal.

    The Turkey model

    The IoD proposal is essentially the "Turkey" model, "a" customs union bi-lateral agreement with the EU. This has been dismissed as a Brexit option on many previous occasions because of the glaring problems of the Turkey model:
    • Described as a "partial" Customs Union, in reality this covers all industrial and processed food goods, i.e. substantially all goods except basic agriculture products (meat, dairy etc.).
    • The tariff rates for these goods are set by Brussels. Turkey has to sit out discussions at WTO/GATT on tariff reductions.
    • Turkey does not benefit from any EU Free Trade agreements (FTA), but third countries who have an FTA with the EU gain tariff free access to Turkey, without offering any reciprocal access to Turkey. Turkey considered ending its Customs Union agreement at the prospect of the EU sealing an FTA with the USA (the now defunct TTIP).
    • Turkey is obliged to harmonise with EU trade policy and negotiate FTA's with third countries to match EU FTA's. Unfortunately, a number of third countries have refused to negotiate with Turkey, as they already have tariff-free access to Turkey by virtue of their FTA with the EU.
    So much for an independent trade policy. The Turkey model would leave control of trade policy in the EU's hands. The EU will effectively be able to sell tariff-free access to the UK without any involvement or reciprocal benefit for the UK. Why would any third country bother negotiating with the UK when tariff-free access would be obtained by negotiating an FTA with the EU ? For that matter, why would countries like South Korea agree to grand-father their existing EU FTA into a UK bi-lateral FTA when it can get tariff-free access to UK for nothing ?

    This issue of FTA asymmetry prompted the EU and Turkey to start negotiating with 3rd countries in parallel. In one case, (Malaysia), Turkey has sealed an FTA ahead of the EU (EU-Malaysia talks stalled over a dispute) - meaning Malaysian goods have tariff-free access to the EU by trans-shipping via Turkey.  The EU is aiming to address FTA asymmetry via an upgrade to the Turkey Customs Union agreement which will provide Turkey with observer status at EU FTA negotiations.  But the relationship is still clearly based on Turkey following the EU's lead on FTA's.

    So it is difficult to see how the EU would grant the UK freedom to negotiate its own FTAs while in a customs union. Would the EU tolerate an UK-USA FTA that meant USA had tariff-free access to the EU market without the EU getting tariff-free access to the USA ? Of course not.  

    Trade in Services

    The IOD sugarcoat their "partial" customs union proposal by pointing out areas where the UK would be free to negotiate - tariffs for basic agricultural goods and more interestingly services.  However, the freedom to negotiate on services is hardly an argument for a customs union, as such freedom also comes with an FTA or the WTO option. It is in fact an argument against the Single Market - which would tie our hands on services regulation. Is this a tacit admission of defeat in the argument for retaining single market membership ?


    The proposed Customs Union with the EU would be far worse for trade policy than EU membership, where at least the UK benefits from EU FTA's and has a vote. A Customs Union does not confer freedom to negotiate on services, that only comes by leaving the single market (which the IOD have opposed).

    So what is the argument for a Customs Union ? IOD rest their case on Rules of Origin (RoO), which I will examine in my next post.

    Posts in this series: