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Fox loses his scents

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 21.07.2017

Trade minister Liam Fox has found an easy win; a trade deal with the EU, he reckons, should be the “easiest in human history”. But if we don’t get it, then not to worry; he told Radio Four that we can “survive” without one. He is, of course, wrong on the first point. And while the second is true, some of us had set our sights slightly higher than subsistence.

Fox thinks a trade deal with the EU should be easy because “we are already beginning with zero tariffs, and we are already beginning at the point of maximal regulatory equivalence”. Assuming that Britain does reach a deal that maintains zero tariffs on all products – despite the protectionist glint in certain nations’ eyes – we would still face a formidable challenge in reducing friction at the border, particularly in Northern Ireland.

But it is his second point that raises the greater issues. As things stand, we have ‘maximal’ equivalence because Britain is in the single market. Once we leave that structure, our laws will begin to diverge from Europe’s, step by step, year by year, unless Britain chooses to match all changes and developments in single-market law, in which case claims of having “taken back” sovereignty would be moot. And where they don’t diverge, British and European case law may anyway start to differ, given that different courts would then be overseeing single-market cases. Handling these divergences would be the task of any deal – and would not be simple.

Moreover, we would then need an arbitration mechanism for settling disputes under the treaty. Within the single market, this role is taken by the European Court of Justice for the EU members, and the EFTA court for the EEA nations. If Fox does not want to be in the single market, then he will need to find an alternative that all parties can agree upon.

On this point, Fox was quite correct to say the “only reason that we wouldn’t come to a free and open agreement is because politics gets in the way of economics”. The Conservative party’s ideological opposition to the ECJ is one example of such a barrier. Brexit itself is a second.  

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These were not Fox’s only slips. The minister told listeners “you cannot leave the European Union and be in the single market or the customs union”. As a certain Liam Fox pointed out in December, this is not actually true. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, Fox said then that “I hear people talking about ‘hard’ Brexit and ‘soft’ Brexit… It’s a little more complex. So Turkey, for example, is part of the customs union but not other parts” – and then refused to rule out membership of the customs union.

As a veteran of the Vote Leave campaign, Fox surely knows that Turkey is not in the EU, but is within the customs union. Similarly, he must have heard his colleague Michael Gove’s speech citing Norway as a prosperous example of “democratic self-government” outside of the EU – despite Norway being within the single market.

As for crashing out without a deal, of course Britain could ‘survive’ such a scenario. But wilfully conjuring the Blitz spirit to deal with an act of economic self-harm in peacetime is beyond perverse. Fox says that “we don’t want to have no deal”, but that “we have to go into a negotiation with those on the other side knowing” we’re willing to walk away.

Do we really? The EU knows as well as Fox does that there is no parliamentary desire for a hard Brexit. It knows that the Conservative party would be put to the sword at the ballot box if they did this. Our negotiating counterparties know such an outcome is not in Britain’s economic interests. They can see the polls; they can guess as well as we can what the people will accept. You cannot bluff with an open hand. Unless Fox is attempting to prepare the public for Britain crashing out, he should stop playing games.

Edited by Bill Emmott

3 Responses to “Fox loses his scents”

  • So, according to Fox, we give up a prosperous partnership with our friendly European neighbours for isolation and, hopefully, survival. Has this dishonest charlatan completely lost what marbles he has?

    Unfortunately an opportunity to remove this dishonest character from public office was missed in 2011, when he was not charged and put before the Courts under either the Official Secrets Act and/or Misconduct in a Public Office, after it was revealed he had, without authority/permission, allowed his “friend” Werritty to accompany him into secret government meetings.

  • If Gove said Norway is a member of the Single Market it is yet another example of either his ignorance or his disregard of the truth, or both. Politicians, for their own reasons, and commentators, because they can’t be bothered to check, continue to get these basic facts wrong and it is very worrying. Norway has ‘considerable access’ to the Single Market, excluding agriculture, fisheries and financial services, but is not a Member. Both May and Hammond have made it clear recently that when we leave the EU inevitably we cannot continue to belong to the Single Market. And by definition it is impossible to belong to a common market without being members of a Customs Union. Neither of these positions are negotiable and it is depressing that at this stage this seems still not to be sufficiently well understood.

    • Great point, John. Don’t get depressed: email your MP and ask him or her to explain how the government intends to overcome this. The MPs don’t know anything and need you to help them!