After nine months of tortuous and at-times fractious negotiations, the UK and the EU have reached agreement on an economic partnership agreement that will govern large swaths of bilateral trade worth more than £650bn.
The deal covers technical aspects of trade for key sectors, including autos, chemicals, pharmaceutical and professional services as well as a governance mechanism to resolve disputes that may arise between the two sides.
Here, the Financial Times looks at key aspects of the deal and assesses how they will affect trade from January 1, when Britain becomes a so-called “third country” outside the EU’s single market and customs union.
Level playing field: standards
The UK and Brussels painstakingly negotiated a system that will leave the UK free to set its own standards in areas such as environmental standards and labour law but with the risk of having access to the European market restricted if it strays too far.
A “rebalancing mechanism”, governed by arbitration, will allow either side to impose tariffs should it be determined that their businesses were at an unfair disadvantage.
Crucially for the UK, the system does not rely on EU law or the European Court of Justice. Jim Brunsden
Level playing field: state aid
Companies in the EU will be able to challenge state aid awarded to UK rivals in Britain’s national courts if they feel it violates common principles set out in the trade deal. British companies will enjoy equivalent rights in the EU.
Britain also agreed to set up an independent state-aid authority, although the deal does not require the UK to have an “ex ante” regime that will vet subsidies before they are granted.
Either side would also be able to unilaterally impose tariffs to counter the effect of trade-distorting subsidies, although the other party could then call for accelerated arbitration.
For the UK, it was important to secure a system far removed from the EU’s original request that it simply continue to follow EU state aid rules — a demand it saw as an affront to sovereignty. Jim Brunsden
EU fishing fleets will have a five and a half-year transition period with guaranteed access to UK waters. After that, access will depend on annual negotiations.
During the transition, EU fishing rights in UK waters — currently worth about €650m per year — will be reduced by one quarter, with British quotas increased by a corresponding amount. The shift will boost UK boats’ current share of fishing rights in British waters from about a half to two-thirds.
After the transition, access to waters will depend on annual negotiations, such as those the EU already has with Norway. But the EU will have some leverage: should the UK revoke access, it will be able to take compensatory measures, including hitting UK fish exports with tariffs, and even shutting the UK out of its energy market. Jim Brunsden
The trade agreement does not contain a section covering the vast flow of personal data between the UK and EU which will be concluded in a separate “adequacy” decision due in early 2021. But the trade deal does cover data flows in specific areas of law enforcement and police co-operation between the two sides.
A senior EU official said the broader data adequacy decision — which is unilaterally granted by Brussels — could be concluded in the “coming weeks”. If granted, it would mean that the EU in effect recognises UK data protection standards as equivalent to its own to allow for the free flow of personal information of EU and UK citizens that underpins the digital economy. Mehreen Khan
Logistics and road haulage
For British hauliers the deal contained mixed blessings. The two sides recognised the validity of each others’ licences and permits and included full transit rights, allowing drivers to cross multiple countries in order to drop a load. This will enable Irish lorries to use the UK as a “landbridge” to deliver goods into the EU.
However, the agreement limits British truckers to a single drop-off and a single pick-up when in Europe, a significant downgrade from EU membership, under which drivers could do three pick-ups inside an EU country before returning home.
Richard Burnett, the head of the Road Haulage Association, said the deal risked decimating the concert haulage industry, which relied on the ability to make multiple trips inside an EU country. “At the moment we have three drop-offs, and this allows one,” he said. Peter Foster
Aviation and travel
The deal allows flying rights between the EU and UK to continue, but UK carriers will not be able to fly between two points within the EU. This was expected, and airlines on both sides have set up foreign subsidiaries to continue current routes, allowing easyJet, for example, to fly between France and Italy.
The UK will still have access to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €100bn research and development programme, while the space industry will be relieved it can access Copernicus, the earth observation programme.
For travellers, visas will be required for visits of more than 90 days, and there may be additional passport checks. Healthcare provisions will still be available for UK visitors into Europe on a basis similar to the current European Health Insurance Card. Philip Georgiadis
Food and drink
An overview published by the European Commission suggested the EU would immediately implement tough new checks on agri-food products, with no grace period. Still, food and farming businesses welcomed the deal but warned that leaving the customs union and single market in a week’s time would still disrupt the food supply chain.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “This week’s chaos at Dover and the last gasp nature of this deal means that there will be significant disruption to supply and some prices will rise.”
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said more UK-EU talks were needed to prevent perishable food becoming caught in border queues.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said the arrangements would mean that the UK’s “food chain will be slower, more complex and more expensive for months if not years.” Judith Evans
The British Retail Consortium, which had estimated that tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit would add £3bn a year to the cost of food for UK consumers, said it welcomed the deal. “Given that four-fifths of UK food imports come from the EU, today’s announcement should afford households around the UK a collective sigh of relief,” said chief executive Helen Dickinson.
However, she added that the zero-tariff agreement should be implemented as soon as possible and new ways needed to be found “to reduce the checks and red tape that we’ll see from the January 1”.
The chemicals industry is among the most exposed to costs of new trading arrangements, with products that enter a large number of cross-border supply chains, from car paint to haircare products, food to pharmaceuticals.
Steve Elliott, head of the Chemical Industries Association, welcomed the “zero-tariff” element of the deal, saving the industry up to £1bn in feared tariff costs, but continued to raise concerns about UK plans to duplicate the EU’s Reach safety regime, in which UK companies had invested £500m in recent years.
The CIA said that unless the UK government had secured access to costly product safety databases on which Reach was based, the industry faced a bill of more than £1bn in “unnecessarily duplicating that work for a new UK regime”. Peter Foster
A key pharma industry goal — that tests and inspections for medicines carried out on one side of the English Channel should be considered valid on the other — has been only partially achieved.
The agreement included “mutual recognition” clauses that should mean UK manufacturing facilities will “not need to undergo separate UK and EU inspections”. However, initial indications on Thursday evening were that the deal did not appear to embrace another key industry demand: mutual recognition of the safety and quality tests. This would mean presale safety tests carried out on medicines in the UK will now need to be duplicated in the EU, causing delays for patients and additional costs. Sarah Neville
The car industry warned that the deal would introduce “much more red tape and regulatory burden for the industry”, which trades almost 3m vehicles a year between the EU and the UK. Cross-Channel trade in automotive parts accounts for almost €14bn.
The UK has already conceded that the EU would not agree to taking a more flexible approach when it came to assessing whether UK cars manufactured with large amounts of non-UK components could qualify for zero-tariff access to the bloc under a trade deal. As a result, some cars may incur tariffs on entering the EU.
However, the UK government said it had won concessions for batteries and electric vehicles that would ensure that British-made electric vehicles were at least eligible for preferential tariff rates. Peter Foster
The UK manufacturing sector welcomed the fact tariffs had been avoided that risked wiping out profits in the sector but warned that companies still faced border delays and the loss of mutual conformity assessment.
This could mean two lots of certification and testing to meet both EU and UK standards, according to Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the manufacturers group Make UK. “This would add significant complexity and cost, for a sector that operates on fine margins,” he said.
A so-called ‘trusted trader scheme’ — where qualified companies could speed through customs — was also welcomed, although companies said they would need to see details, given the costs of participating in the system.
Far fewer companies in the UK have this “authorised economic operator” status than in Europe, given the costs, which means that it may end up benefiting larger groups with in-house experts over smaller operators.
Mr Phipson added that the lack of recognition of professional qualifications was “challenging news for manufacturers wanting to send engineers to the EU”. Daniel Thomas
Professional services providers will lose their ability to automatically work in the EU after the deal failed to obtain pan-EU mutual recognition of professional qualifications.
This means that professions from doctors and vets to engineers and architects must have their qualifications recognised in each EU member state where they want to work. There will, however, be provisions for short-term business trips and temporary secondments of highly skilled employees.
Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at think-tank the Centre for European Reform, said the deal “did little to maintain existing market access for UK services providers” and the UK had failed to secure ambitious provisions, relying on “vaguer commitments that offer little in practice”. Daniel Thomas
The deal does not cover financial services access to EU markets, which is still to be determined by a separate process under which the bloc will either unilaterally grant “equivalence” to the UK and its regulated companies, or leave firms to seek permissions from individual member states.
The UK government did claim two “wins” for the City of London: preventing a measure that could have restricted EU firms from outsourcing lucrative work to the UK and excluding financial services from “cross retaliation” measures if other parts of the trade agreement were breached.
However, legal experts said these were not significant victories for the UK, as equivalence and market access were bigger factors. “These are wins, but pretty small on the Richter scale of regulation,” said Simon Morris of law firm CMS. “What matters is wider wholesale market access, on a basis yet to be defined let alone negotiated.” Matthew Vincent
Defence and security
As expected, UK police and intelligence agencies are to be cut off from the EU’s most sensitive real-time crime databases. However, British security services will still be able to see crucial air passenger data, criminal record information, and DNA, fingerprint and vehicle registration data, with ongoing access to so-called PNR and Prüm databases.
This means they will still be able to work with EU allies on joint investigations into terrorism and all forms of organised crime. It is not yet clear what exactly will replace the European Arrest Warrant, which allows swift extradition of criminals between EU countries. The National Police Chiefs’ Council, which represents chief constables, said it was working with government to “fully understand the detail” and ensure forces are prepared for any changes. Helen Warrell
Fears grow over media independence in Czech Republic
European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.
Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.
However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.
Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.
Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.
MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website iRozhlas.cz last month.
However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.
EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.
“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.
“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”
The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.
“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.
Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.
“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”
The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.
The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding.
Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond.
Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.
CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor
Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.
The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.
The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.
After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.
Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.
Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.
Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.
Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.
Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.
The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.
There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.
The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.
EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland
The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.
Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week.
“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached.
“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official.
The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.
The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.
From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.
The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts.
“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”
But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.
Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.
“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”
However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.
Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.
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