Countdown to Brexit: 64 days – Still no trade deals in place - and pressure grows to solve Irish border issues in a no-deal Brexit

In 2017, Dr Laim Fox, Secretary of State for Foreign Trade “spoke confidently” of his Department's ability to ensure that 40 of the trade deals the EU has with major global economies could be replicated in a no-deal scenario - but none have so far been signed.

After the Government suffered the major defeat of their proposed Withdrawal Agreement and Political Framework last week - the current default should Parliament be unable to ratify a treaty with the EU prior to 29 March the UK will face a "no-deal" exit.

In these circumstances, all trade deals that the UK is currently party to as an EU member would instantly cease to apply.

As late as last week, Fox said he remained "hopeful" that these free trade deals remained possible – if the other countries involved were "willing to put the work in".

Addressing the issue in the House of Commons, Labour's Chris Leslie asked if the Government would uphold the promise made at the Conservative party conference that they would have 40 free trade agreements ready for “one second after midnight on 29 March 2019.”  He also asked if the Government could clarify whether current free trade agreements would lapse following the UK's exit from the EU.

The question was responded to by George Hollingbery, Minister of State for Trade Policy.  He argued there were a "very wide range of reasons" why setting up new free trade agreements was proving challenging.  He went on to assure the House that he believed the majority of the 40 agreements raised by Chris Leslie would be in place by 29 March 2019.

No-deal Brexit and the Irish border

Meanwhile, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Leon Varadkar, Irish Prime Minister, said the solution to the border was to ratify the deal agreed between the UK and the EU.

He re-iterated that if the UK leaves without a deal - the EU and Ireland would want an agreement with similar provisions as the Irish border backstop.  The backstop is effectively an insurance policy to avoid a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – and effective if no other solution can be found, say, through a wider trade deal with the EU.

Varadkar pointed out that, by contrast, Ireland would continue to benefit from the EU's trade deals.

"In a no-deal scenario, the UK won't have any trade deals with anyone.  I think it will be very difficult for them to conclude any trade deals with the question of the Irish border unresolved.  I think we would end up in a situation where EU and Ireland and the UK would have to come together and - in order to honour our commitment to the people of Ireland that there be no hard border - we would have to agree on full alignment on customs and regulations," said Varadkar.

He concluded that "after a period of chaos, we would perhaps end up where we are now, with a very similar deal."

Back in Dublin, Niall Cody, chair of the Irish Revenue Commissioners' said that tax officials are not planning for customs posts along the Irish border – and that there would have to be intensive consultations with the European Commission to decide what would happen.

Speaking to the Irish parliament's finance committee, he said the authority was recruiting more staff due to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.  "We are on track to have over 400 additional staff in place by the end of March," he said.

"We have reassigned serving staff, are preparing for any necessary further redeployments on a temporary basis, and will have the balancing complement of additional staff recruited by the end of 2019."

Cody indicated that a lot of customs work would be done online with officials making occasional visits to businesses and factories.  He disagrees with Brexiteers who have claimed that there will be no dramatic change to the border if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.  There would be "significant cost implications" for businesses - particularly in the agriculture sector - he added.

And north of the border

Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), said yesterday that the Withdrawal Agreement reached between the UK and the EU left significant gaps in the protection of human rights in areas like citizens’ rights and puts people on both sides of the border at risk.

She appeared before the Justice and Equality Committee - alongside representatives from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), and Queen’s University - to discuss the potential implications of Brexit on human rights and equality.

Logan said: “I don’t think the public understand that the implications… people might find themselves in a situation of being forced to assume an identify they wouldn’t choose.”

Ms Logan said the offer of continued EU citizenship should be extended to all the “people of Northern Ireland” - as defined by the Good Friday Agreement - and given recognition of the birth-right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish or British, or both.

“The last situation we wish to see is one where the people of Northern Ireland feel forced to choose their identity based on what they think their post-Brexit entitlements might be,” she said.

John ShuttleworthComment