Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
I am shocked that the Remain interest has been so successful in wrongly frightening people about the problems of the UK functioning under WTO if there is no EU deal. The EU accounts for a diminishing part of the world economy and of our trade. Its markets are slow-growing, and its population is ageing. Its share of world output has halved since 1980 and will continue to reduce. The growth markets of the future are outside the EU. The GDP of the Commonwealth is now some 30 per cent more than that of the EU (including the UK).
We are also clear that we do not want to be tied to accepting instructions from the EU and ECJ, unable to establish our own trade agreements; and that it is also undesirable to remain tied to the EU economically with its antiquated and protectionist Customs Union, protectionist Single Market, and its overweight regulation model. Membership of the EU has been a drag on the UK economy for a long time. What we need is a post-Brexit competitiveness boost, which to be effective requires a clean break. Post-Brexit, we also need to be able to decide our own regulatory regimes.
My preference for some time has been a Canada-style managed “Free Trade Plus” Agreement, but the Prime Minister’s negotiations have opted for keeping the UK tied to the EU, in several ways and for a long time. I would, therefore, now prefer the option of a managed, No Deal Brexit, trading under WTO rules. The WTO option is not about falling off a cliff or crashing out. Rather it would provide us with the economic freedoms we need in order to make the best of Brexit. It was this which the citizens of this country voted for in the referendum. Around a half of our international trade (55 per cent) is already conducted under WTO rules, and with non-EU, WTO members.
The WTO has made huge advances in facilitating trade across customs borders: under the Landmark Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) developed countries with adequate resources are expected to install state of the art, border systems to avoid impeding trade. Streamlined, computerised borders are now the norm. The WTO’s rule-based trading regime is comprehensive, tried and tested and respected by the world’s trading nations.
Over the last decade Britain’s exports have grown by over 60 per cent. Exports to the EU grew by only 40 per cent, but to non-EU economies by 80 per cent. It is clear where the growing markets are. Trade and the UK can thrive under WTO rules. Trade is driven by commercial realities, irrespective of the Single Market – to which we would still have access under WTO rules, as a third country. From an EU perspective, the possibility of free trade with the UK should be extremely attractive. The EU has a trade surplus with the UK of approximately £100 billion a year. For Germany, the UK is the second biggest market for its cars.
The WTO fear campaign has hugely exaggerated the potential risks of temporary and short-term crisis in moving our EU trade to WTO rules. Given the preparation that has gone on, I believe there would be very few glitches in practice. For the longer term, just as we conduct our trade successfully with the US under WTO rules, so too we can conduct our trade successfully with the EU under WTO rules.
How are the last-minute negotiations are likely to break? Theresa May is on clear record as saying that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”. But she does not want No Deal, as it would run the political risk of breaking up the Conservative Party. She has now delayed the “meaningful vote” in the Commons until March 12th at the latest, when the Prime Minister’s deal will be the only option. It is also clear that there is no parliamentary majority for even a managed No Deal.
The EU would also like to achieve a deal, in part to secure the £39 billion UK contribution to the EU; and, longer term, to support EU trade and the EU £100 billion, UK trade surplus. The EU does not, however, wish to make departure from the EU ‘too easy’, and wants to discourage others from seeking to depart. This could end up causing the UK to withdraw to WTO, unilaterally, but this now looks unlikely. The key territory is the Northern Ireland backstop terms. An acceptable deal for the UK could be achieved with modern technology. But in the backstop agreement that the Prime Minister has negotiated so far, the UK is left being required to accept ECJ law and rulings, without any appeal. The main reason for the referendum result was a strong objection to being told what to do by EU organisations.
I suspect both the UK and the EU will, ‘at the last minute’, manage to agree an unsatisfactory compromise, which sounds just about acceptable to both; although I fear it would be a bad deal for the UK, and could be a sell-out on the crucial issue of having to accept ECJ law.
Whichever way the Prime Minister eventually goes, she will also continue to run the risk of splitting the Conservative Party. For what it is worth, my advice to her would be to stick to principle (which is always defendable) rather than opt for fudge. I anticipate, however, that we will end up with a standard EU, last minute, ‘fudge’ Deal.