By Professor Alex de Ruyter, Head of the Centre for Brexit Studies

With the release of the UK Government’s paper on its customs relationship with the EU and the knock-on effects for the border of Northern Ireland, there’s been a lot of talk about how practical or realistic the Government’s proposals are.

We’ve been told that if we want to keep the border in Northern Ireland open and have ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU, then we would need to keep a Customs Union with the EU intact. The UK Government says it could use IT to solve the problem, allowing us to have our cake and eat it too by keeping an open border with Ireland, but negotiating our own trade deals outside the Customs Union. However, it remains to be seen why the EU would accept this, particularly given its strict approach to trade in agricultural products, which are a vital part of Ireland-UK trade.

Doubts are also being raised about how soon trade negotiations between the UK and EU will begin, with Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar suggesting Britain has yet to make sufficient progress on key withdrawal issues relating to the Irish border, the “divorce settlement” and the rights of EU citizens in the UK. Significantly Cerar will be one of the 27 EU leaders who need to give the go-ahead for these trade talks to begin.

Trade deals

At this point I will declare that I am an Australian, who has lived in the UK now for 17 years, and have made it my home. But as an outsider I guess that might give me a different perspective on the whole Brexit phenomenon as it has unfolded.

And one of things that strikes me most about the debate (so far at least) is the lack of any real attention devoted to what other countries think of us when it comes to trade deals, or Brexit in general. I am specifically thinking of Commonwealth countries here, such as the land of my birth, Australia; but also New Zealand, Canada and India. Prime Minister Theresa May has described Commonwealth countries as ‘old friends’, but what do these old friends want out of any trade deal with the UK?

To answer this we must remember that trade deals are about business and would not be formed out of any sentimental nostalgia for Britain’s previous ties with these countries.

The Australian Trade Minister, Mr. Steven Ciobo, made this clear last year in a talk to the European Parliament, where he described the historical links between the UK and Australia as “in many respects a relationship of yesteryear”. He added that negotiating a free trade deal with Britain would be “at a minimum … two and half years away”, and said talks with the EU were significantly more advanced. That’s right, Australia is prioritising a trade deal with the EU.

If we assume negotiations between the UK and Australia will begin in a few years – and it’s worth pointing out it took Canada seven years to thrash out a deal with the EU – then expect a lot of lobbying from the business sector in each of these countries to their respective governments.

Key for Australia and New Zealand will be access to UK markets for their farmers (think New Zealand lamb, Australian grains and beef etc.). These countries produce farm goods on a far bigger scale, and cheaper than UK farmers do, so would have a competitive advantage straight away. And I say this because the Australian and New Zealand governments would not entertain any trade deal with the UK that would allow the UK Government to continue to subsidise its farming sector once the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies cease to apply (and this is before we even begin to entertain a trade deal with the US – a country with whom we currently have a trade surplus). Whilst one might not argue against cheaper food, as seen with the issue of “chlorinated chicken” in the US, there could be issues around quality and animal welfare, and what would the UK be able to trade in return, if it is to pay its way in the world?

Furthermore, all of these countries have made it clear to the UK Government that any rights secured for EU citizens coming to the UK post-Brexit, should also apply to citizens of their own countries. The Indian Government has stated repeatedly that freedom of movement for Indian nationals coming to the UK, should be just as important as free trade in goods, services or investment.

What does this mean? I have mentioned previously in these columns that freedom of movement was one of the key things that Leave campaigners wanted to ‘take back control’ over. It would be ironic then that if we wish to leave the Single Market and Customs Union to escape to the open seas, that we could be confronted with demands to uphold freedom of movement, but with different countries. Suffice to say, this would be another nail in the coffin in the UK Government’s stated policy of reducing net migration p.a. to the tens of thousands, a policy which has been subject to criticism for doing things like including international students in net migration statistics, and as such, already appeared unrealistic.

Trade deals take time, and hard negotiations – even with ‘old friends’ – and it is by no means clear that the UK will gain anything out of them (particularly given how little we trade with these Commonwealth countries to begin with). In the meantime, we will have said goodbye to the EU. Despite the upbeat suggestions from some quarters, given the potential complexities surrounding these negotiations it’s possible that in a year or so, as the Article 50 deadline draws near, we could find ourselves thinking “better the devil we know”. But by then – if that’s how you feel – it might be too late.