On Monday, Michael Gove announced that Britain will produce a draft FTA before the next round of negotiations with the EU. In a statement to Parliament, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said the document will be among a number of legal texts the UK plans to publish before talks resume. The UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost echoed the message, tweeting: “We will table legal texts including a draft FTA before Round 2 next week.”
The talks were expected to start on March 18 in Whitehall offices in London, but have now been replaced with discussions via video conference-call due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The cancellation puts additional pressure on the Prime Minister, whose blueprint is a sign the Government may be readying a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the bloc – a strategy which, according to trade experts, is not only unusual but could also be detrimental.
On Tuesday, Former Australian trade negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski wrote on Twitter: “If they do go public or if the draft leaks, it means whatever final deal is reached with the EU, the UK negotiators will have to explain not only any divergence from the high level negotiating mandate, but also literally every word of divergence from this draft FTA text.
“The EU is often said to have successfully weaponised transparency against the UK in Brexit Phase I, so this may be an attempt to double down and turn the tables.
“The UK strategy could be nailing its trousers to the mast in as many ways as possible to present the EU with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ deal, while furiously signalling the UK can live with either.
“It’s a risky approach, and one that leaves little room for actual negotiation.”
Trade and custom expert Dr Anna Jerzewska echoed Mr Grozoubinski’s claims, and noted that the negotiations could now play out in three different ways.
She tweeted: “The first one is that four years of Government’s ‘listening mode’ worked and all the meetings and consultations allowed the Government to have a clear picture of what the UK industry needs.
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“Behind closed doors, the relevant departments were working hard to analyse our offensive and defensive interests.
“And the draft will be robust and sensible.”
The second option, Dr Jerzewska wrote, is that the draft will be a desktop exercise written by someone who has seen other FTAs and generally gets the structure.
It will be based on the Government’s political ideology and the general gist of it will be “we want everything and concede on nothing”.
She noted: “In that case, it will be rejected by Brussels before the next round starts.
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“Dead on arrival, like so many previous UK proposals.
“But it could make for a good ‘EU is being difficult’ headline.”
The third option could be an African style FTA, the trade expert added.
She said: “If you ever worked with African FTAs, the ones that are already in place and ‘operational’, you’ll know that a lot of the text consists of placeholders. An empty page with ‘to be negotiated at a later date’.
“So the draft might just include key points the UK insists on i.e. freedom to diverge, no dynamic alignment etc, no role of the ECJ… etc.
“To be fair, given all we’ve seen so far over the last four years, I can only hope that it’s more of this and less of option three.”
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