As the UK heads toward an election, much of the focus remains on Brexit negotiations; but there needs to be more thought given to the long term, especially when it comes to trade.
After three years of wrangling over Brexit, it may feel like an end is in sight. But much still hangs in the air.
Although the United Kingdom was due to leave the European Union on 31 October 2019, it has now been granted a flexible extension – or flextension – until 31 January 2020.
The constant drama of Brexit negotiations has dominated global headlines.
Politicians and commentators have been following every twist and turn in the Brexit ordeal, but has the long-term vision for the UK been lost amidst the political impasse?
Professor Philomena Murray from the School of Social and Political Sciences is concerned that with so much focus on the skirmishes surrounding the deal itself, the future impact of Brexit is overlooked.
She says the UK has been stuck in “the politics of the immediate and that’s been overshadowing the politics of the medium to long term”
At the heart of the Leave campaign is the desire to take back control. By leaving the EU, Britain will be able to control its own borders, enforce its own laws and negotiate its global trade deals.
But what will that actually mean for British citizens beyond the acute timeline?
More than 22,000 pieces of legislation tie Britain to the EU.
To implement Brexit the British government will need to replace or rescind each piece of legislation when it leaves the EU. What this means is that extracting itself from the European Union will be a lengthy and costly process for Britain, diverting money and resources away from health, education and social care.
There is also concern in some quarters that the current Conservative government may rescind legislation that protects human rights.
But when it comes to global trade Professor Murray argues that by exiting the EU, Britain will lose its current privileged access to the world market.
“When you join the European Union, you actually are part of some of the biggest trade agreements in the world like the EU-Japan accord which was signed recently, so you’ve got great trade access”
After the UK removes itself from these established trade deals, it will then have to begin the process of negotiating new trade agreements with other countries, from scratch.
This is a process that could take years rather than months, potentially leaving businesses with significant disruption to their current market and with little hope of securing new global business any time soon.
Then there are further questions around Britain’s capacity to negotiate these new trade deals.
The British government has given very few details about what potential future trade deals will look like. And while the UK wants to take control of its borders and protect its interests, countries negotiating with the UK will also be looking to advance their own positions.
There has already been talk of a fast-tracked Free Trade Deal with the US, but could this further compromise the UK’s relationship with the EU?
Along with Australia, the EU has the most stringent health and sanitary and phytosanitary measures in the world. These are procedures that are in place to protect humans, animals and plants from disease, pests and other contamination.
But Professor Murray cautions against the UK lowering its standards to secure a deal with America.
“If the UK lowers its standards in a Free Trade Agreement with the US, it is possible that the EU will take the position of: ‘we’re not taking your agricultural goods in because we don’t know if you’ve got chlorinated chicken from the US’.”
So any deal with America will also come with a significant list of demands from the EU as well as from the US itself.
On another disturbing note, President Donald Trump’s administration has already indicated that it would want to secure access to the UK’s public health system in a Free Trade Deal.
Dr Margherita Matera, a researcher in the School of Social and Political Sciences, says this development could see more private American companies win contracts to provide services under the National Health Service (NHS).
“Trump is going to try and steamroll any deal. They will want access to the public health system in a free trade agreement, they’ve made it quite clear that’s what they want and I’m not sure whether the UK has a strong bargaining stance on that,” says Dr Matera.
Another major challenge Britain faces when it begins global trade negotiations is the lack of trade negotiators.
This is not to say the UK does not have good negotiators, but the fact is they haven’t had to negotiate a trade deal since 1973 when they joined the EU.
Dr Matera says this could leave them at a significant disadvantage at the trade bargaining table.
“Trade negotiations for the past 46 years have been done by the EU. How many negotiators does the UK actually have to negotiate trade agreements?
“If we think about the negotiators that have been negotiating with the EU for Brexit, the UK needs to think seriously about whether they have the capacity.”
When Britain leaves the EU it will be free to shape its own future. But what’s worrying is what the UK may lose along the way.
Banner image source: Getty Images
This piece was co-published with the University of Melbourne's research translation & public engagement platform Pursuit.