After nearly two years of negotiations between the European Union (EU-27) and the United Kingdom (UK), European leaders endorsed the “The Draft Agreement on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community”and the “Political Declaration Setting out the Framework for the Future Relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom” at a special meeting of the European Council on November 25, 2018.
This process is taking place pursuant to Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which sets out the terms and timelines for the withdrawal of any Member State from the EU. The text of the UK’s draft Withdrawal agreement, which was released on November 14, 2018, delineates the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, while the Political Declaration outlines broad aspirations for the constitutive elements of the two parties’ future trading relationship.
This article takes a brief look at what possible implications the draft Brexit Withdrawal Agreement may have for future CARIFORUM-UK trading relations, which are currently under negotiation and are reportedly close to being finalised.
Essential Elements of the Withdrawal Agreement
The UK ceases to be an EU Member State on March 29, 2019. During the transition period (March 29, 2019 to December 31, 2020), and subject to certain limited exceptions, EU law and the EU institutions and agencies will continue to be applicable to the UK, although it will no longer be an EU Member State. The UK will, however, be ineligible to be represented on, or participate in the decision-making processes of these institutions. This arrangement was deemed necessary to ensure a ‘smooth’ transition and provide for some certainty for traders while the parties hammer out the details of their future trading relationship. The Joint Committee may extend the transition period only once and this must be exercised before July 1, 2020.
The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland includes the controversial “backstop” option, whereby in the event that the EU and UK fail to negotiate an agreement which prevents a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland (a country of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU Member State) within the transition period, the UK will be part of a single UK-EU customs territory until such an agreement is made. However, both the EU and UK have expressly stated their intention to conclude such an agreement by July 1, 2020.
Both the EU and UK Government have openly stated that they consider the negotiations on the two agreements closed, and have argued that the deal was the best that could be achieved in the circumstances. Although EU leaders endorsed both agreements, approval and ratification by the UK parliament is also needed under the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. UK House of Commons support appears questionable at this stage given the fervent opposition by both Remain and Leave MPs to the current Withdrawal Agreement. The House of Commons will debate the deal on December 11, 2018.
Implications for CARIFORUM-UK Trading Relations
Traders from CARIFORUM currently have preferential access to the UK market under the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (CARIFORUM-EU EPA). While CARIFORUM-EU trading relations will remain unchanged once the UK leaves the EU, the same cannot be said for CARIFORUM-UK relations.
For most Anglophone CARIFORUM countries, the UK is their main trading partner within the EU, as well as a major source market for tourism and investment. It has been reported that UK-CARIFORUM bilateral trade totaled £2.1 billion in 2016.
Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK remains bound to all EU international agreements, including trade agreements such as the CARIFORUM-EU EPA, to which it is party by virtue of being an EU Member State. However, during the transition period, the UK must not engage in actions deemed “likely prejudicial to EU interests” and its representatives will be barred from participating in the work of any bodies established pursuant to such agreements, unless it does so in its own right or upon invitation by the EU. This would include any bodies, such as the Joint CARIFORUM-EU Council, established pursuant to the CARIFORUM-EU EPA.
The Withdrawal Agreement does not preclude the UK from negotiating, signing and ratifying its own trade agreements with third States or groupings, such as CARIFORUM, during the transition period. But the entry into force and application of said agreements during the transition period would be subject to EU authorization. With respect to CARIFORUM, the grouping is currently negotiating a roll-over of the EPA concessions with the UK to minimize any disruption to CARIFORUM-UK trade. Such a CARIFORUM-UK trade agreement, therefore, would be subject to EU authorization if it is to enter into force during the transition period. In any case, as noted above, the UK will remain a party to the EPA and bound to apply EPA concessions to CARIFORUM traders during the transition period.
But what about the UK’s future trading relations with the EU? A ‘no deal Brexit’ is still a possibility as the draft Withdrawal Agreement needs ratification by each of the EU 27 countries. There is also still that pesky question of the negotiation of the future UK-EU trading relationship. The Political Declaration envisions a UK-EU free trade agreement, the terms of which remain to be negotiated.
A ‘no deal Brexit’ would make it difficult for CARIFORUM firms looking to use the UK as a stepping stone to EU markets, which means a climate of uncertainty will continue to prevail for Caribbean firms seeking to use the UK as a conduit for accessing the EU market until the full details of future UK-EU terms of trade are agreed. It was recently reported that the agreement between the UK and CARIFORUM was close to being reached and has taken into account the possibility of a ‘no deal Brexit’.
The climate of uncertainty may also impact CARIFORUM-UK trade and investment from the UK side. Although some UK businesses have by now conducted risk assessments and built in Brexit contingency plans, the continued political and economic uncertainty and volatility of sterling will continue to weigh on their export, hiring and investment decisions.
The Withdrawal Agreement takes us one step closer to some idea of what the future UK-EU relations will be, but a climate of political and economic uncertainty will remain for some time, which may have an impact on CARIFORUM-UK trading relations.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is an international trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.