The excitement of Donald Trump proposing a new trade deal with the UK should be tempered with some realism. Putting aside how uneasy we should all feel at the sycophancy of our government towards a man who openly mocked a disabled reporter, is misogynistic, and to many threatens the stability of the world order, we must not fall blindly in to a trap of thinking this outweighs the benefits of free trade with Europe through being in the Single Market. Of course, this is what the Brextremists want you to think, but it doesn’t add up.
Donald Trump’s victory may have shaken the kaleidoscope, but there are plenty of facts that are as true now as they were on 8 November. Europe is our most important trading partner; the value of a US deal has been overstated; negotiating such an agreement would take years, and negotiations will not begin until we leave the EU; and trade with the United States is perfectly compatible with staying in Europe’s Single Market.
The EU is our largest trading partner, and is going to stay that way. International businesses invest in the UK because we are economically integrated with the EU. If we weaken those ties through new trade barriers, trade and investment will fall. Therefore, protecting our trade links with the EU must be the priority. By embracing a deal with the US, the UK would be leaving the Customs Union, which would mean new bureaucratic hurdles to cross-border trade.
Whatever Leave campaigners might say, there is actually no evidence to suggest a deal with the US would significantly boost trade. Government-commissioned research showed that a EU-US deal would boost UK GDP by, at most, 0.35%. The Government also estimated that leaving the Single Market would, at best, hit UK GDP by 3.8%. Even if both estimates are not exact, the scale of the potential benefits versus potential risk is striking. Even in the best-case scenario, a trade deal with the United States will not come close to compensating for the damage caused by pulling out of the Single Market.
Brextremists like to talk of a “quick” deal with the United States, as though international trade negotiation is a matter of shaking hands and signing the dotted line. Not so. To have a deal that is speedily agreed almost certainly means the smaller partner, in this case the UK, acceding to the terms of the larger partner, the US. Will the US retain their desire to allow US private healthcare providers access to our NHS, as many feared would be the consequence of TTIP? Will they want to import their agricultural products tariff-free, and with what consequence for our food safety standards and our domestic industry? Will tariff-free access be reciprocal given Trump’s protectionist rhetoric? What specific sectors will benefit and on what timescale? These questions need answers.
In any case, Britain cannot begin formal trade talks with other countries while it remains within the EU’s Customs Union, which we will be until March 2019 at the earliest. For the UK to pursue this path would damage relations with the EU at a time when we must prioritise friendly and co-operative negotiations that work for both sides. It makes little sense to start negotiations with a strategy of ensuring the EU feels like spurned competitors rather than valued participants in a mutually-beneficial partnership.
Hard Brexiteers who talk about replacing the Single Market with new trade deals are creating a damaging false dichotomy. They ignore the fact that Britain can stay within the Single Market and strike our own international trade deals too. All countries in the European Economic Area, but outside the EU, can strike their own deals covering goods and services. The EFTA States have 27 Free Trade Agreements covering 38 countries. If the UK Government’s formal assessment is that new FTAs will be so beneficial that leaving the Customs Union is essential, we can combine this with remaining in the Single Market. Such decisions should be evidence-based and subject to Parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
The most significant aspect of this is that the Government’s direction of travel is now becoming clear. They intend to erect new trade barriers with the EU by leaving the Single Market in pursuit of an unachievable migration reduction target that, if it were met, would harm our economy by choking off our access to skills and labour. They intend to leave the Customs Union in pursuit of new trade deals which will not outweigh the costs of leaving and, rather, will impose impediments to trade that could deter investment. They intend to embrace a deregulatory, low tax agenda to incentivise investment at the expense of workers’ rights, public spending, and environmental standards. They will use the mirage of a positive UK-Trump relationship to mask the costs of this approach. And they will do this without allowing our nation’s elected representatives time to debate these issues. Most Britons – whether they voted Leave or Remain – will be the losers in this scenario; the top 1% of earners and tax-avoiding multinationals will be the winners. So the Prime Minister needs to stop betting the house on the most unpredictable US president in history, and embrace the safe option of staying in the Single Market.