The decision to axe Noel Edmonds’s Deal or No Deal was made just after the Brexit Referendum. Even the most ardent Mr Blobby conspiracy theorist would accept that the two events are, of course, utterly unconnected – except now for the political relevance of the show’s name, and a range of hidden stakes at play.
I would suggest the idea of there being a bipolar result, Deal or No Deal, is an entirely false dichotomy.
There are of course many different models for the type of deal that can arise. A rather big list of all the types the EU has entered into in the past can be found here, along with their official EU titles. Some of them are not even trade deals as we would be familiar with today, such as the Agreement on Trade and Commercial and Economic Cooperation (ATCEC) model the EEC used to pursue with Communist states. While not even Jeremy Corbyn’s friends are recommending the ATCEC route, its existence shows that the definition of what constitutes a “Deal” can be both fluid and marginal.
And what of “No Deal”? This is where opposing camps discussing Brexit slip into weird parallel debates, because a similar multiplicity exists here, too.
Some months ago, ConservativeHome spent a week reviewing what a WTO default set of terms would look like. A key point was that with international rules and standards, the norm involves a wider circuitry of international organisations and agreements. Now for EU members, it happens that a number of these agreements are packaged together. That does not, though, mean to say that the wiring always requires EU membership, or EEA membership for that matter.
To go back to that list of alternative EU trading models: a number fall well short of the sort of Free Trade Agreement we might be aiming for, yet still address many of the spectres that are currently being raised about “No Deal” scenarios. When one gets right down to the bottom of the list, even agreements under the fall-back Most Favoured Nation (MFN) terms find single-subject EU bilaterals separately then bolted onto them. Indeed, their existence is cited by pro-EEA campaigners in the argument that nobody really trades on WTO terms at all.
Which is rather the point. You don’t necessarily need to have a single, big, super EU deal to iron out potential problems.
EU accession states work on converging across 35 parallel Chapters, after all. It would make better sense for de-accession states to manage divergence across 35 Chapters, too. Reviewing them in depth in the Red Cell, the admin on most of the UK ones would probably get signed off quickly.
So back to the vocabulary. When people who oppose Brexit and want to scaremonger talk about “No Deal”, they actually mean a scenario where talks have broken down. David Davis is locked out of (or in) the room, no-one is returning any calls, and shares in asparagus nibbles are plummeting. Meanwhile, the French are cementing breeze blocks into the entrance to Calais port, Heathrow is turning into a cross between Maplins and Dunkirk, and the media is going full Fawlty Towers. This “No Deal” means that there is a trade war going on, officials are being deliberately sticky and awkward with all the paperwork, and all bets are off.
By contrast, when rationalists talk about “No Deal”, they mean no single unitary and all-encompassing deal has been reached. But the context also allows for a hundred little side agreements being signed off. A “No Deal Deal” sounds a bit Donald Rumsfeldian, but it encompasses a significant measure of administrative continuity. It means new paperwork, but it doesn’t mean the same amount as is needed for goods from South Sudan, say. It means tariffs on chicken, but no Chicken Licken.
That’s all assuming the negotiators and planners, forewarned and forearmed, know their job; but it is just silly to follow some bloggers and presume they don’t.
The absence of a central Big Deal doesn’t automatically mean that the UK has to redefine what a Camembert is, any more than it means the end of flights taking off from Heathrow (on that political absurdity, look at the flight maps of how you get from say Schiphol to New York for reciprocal damage once that escalates). One can imagine the conversations in Brussels running something like this;
You agree to continue to recognise the Water Systems Regulation Authority and us the Commission counterparts? Good, next.
We can agree to contact via the sTESTA system where relevant? Yep, access rights changes here at this terminal and there, but sorted.
You of course recognise what we’ve signed up to with the European Patent Convention and the European Patent Office still stands? Yep, that’s right, they are non-EU bodies – let’s move on.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency to remain an acknowledged certifying body? OK. Continued mutual recognition of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and counterparts? Fine. UK share of EU staff pension obligations we’ll discuss on Tuesday – we are just up for covering UK nationals, but that ties in with the assets meeting happening then. Authority for accrediting Certificates of Free Sale? Agreed.
The list goes on: the Red Cell hit list runs to 216 pages. The point is that by my reckoning, 80 per cent of issues are largely non-contentious and carry mutual gain. If nobody did anything about them, they would indeed become Technical Barriers to Trade often simply by leaving a marginal hint of legal ambiguity. But in the absence of outright hostility, a bag full of MoUs could sign off most of them.
It’s the remaining 20 per cent which carry the political baggage, are associated with some potentially huge bills, and here and there may find a bodyguard of potent vested interests. Those are, alongside tariffs and wider residency rights and similar, where the talks are going to be at.
Linguistically, of course, the worst case scenario of leaving the EU with even just those 80 per cent of issues resolved is a “Deal” of sorts, even if the collective success may be invisible to the media and ignored by everyone else. By contrast, how much different would be, say, those issues signed off but all contained in a single document in a snazzy signing ceremony, but still nothing on tariffs? Or an 81 per cent deal, by contrast, with some tariffs also agreed but mottled by a huge sum paid into the central EU budget? Some possible Deals would be worse than a No Deal Deal. That is the real issue.
So it makes sense – as we urged in the ConservativeHome week on MFN terms – to be clear about what we are all talking about – Deal, No Deal, or Side Deal.
Within these, it is incumbent on us to differentiate between an EEA Deal and an FTA Deal; a transitional deal with a sunset clause and a “transitional” deal designed to trap us; a transitional deal and a unilateral mirroring arrangement.
But it is just as important to make it clear what we mean by “No Deal” – the boogie man disaster movie; or the workaround default that both gets us clear from so much of the damaging EU baggage, and also keeps the UK trading.