The countdown is on. With 100 days to go before the United Kingdom’s (UK) scheduled withdrawal from the European Union (EU), and the ratification of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement less likely, both sides have this week announced contingency plans for a ‘No-Deal Brexit’. What do these recent developments mean for CARIFORUM-UK trade, not just at the policy level, but at the firm level as well?
It has been a busy week in Brexit news. After delaying the House of Commons vote on the Draft Withdrawal Agreement which was scheduled for December 11th, UK Prime Minister Theresa May this week announced that the promised vote will be held the week of January 14, 2019. In the interim, Mrs. May will be seeking to obtain additional legal assurances from the EU-27 that the deal’s ‘backstop’ provision would not keep the UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely.
UK and EU Brexit Contingency Plans Underway
However, in recognition of an increasingly likely ‘no deal’ scenario, the May Government also announced plans to, inter alia, put 3,500 troops on standby, allocate monies from a contingency fund to key government departments, and outlined a post-Brexit immigration plan.
The EU, for its part, has sought to safeguard the interests of its own EU-27 citizens and businesses by implementing a contingency plan comprising 14 legislative measures and targeting key Brexit-vulnerable sectors. Specifically on trade, the EU noted, inter alia, that “all relevant EU legislation on the importation and exportation of goods will apply to goods moving between the EU and the UK”. In a clear signal to the May Government, the EU was quick to point out that its contingency plan is meant to safeguard EU citizens foremost, that the measures do not replicate the benefits of EU membership, and that these will not mitigate all the risks of a ‘no deal Brexit’.
Why is a ‘no deal’ more likely now?
In an article I recently co-authored with Dr. Jan Yves Remy last week, we highlighted at least four scenarios for future UK-EU relations and analysed what each scenario may mean in turn for CARIFORUM-UK relations. Brexit represents the most epochal and seismic shift in UK trade and political policy in recent history. Brexit developments remain quite fluid, but recent developments evince the increasing likelihood of the ‘no deal’ scenario.
EU leaders have repeatedly ruled out a return to the negotiating table. A renegotiated withdrawal agreement, therefore, now appears highly unlikely. Despite calls for a second referendum, including from former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, this option has been fervently dismissed by the May Administration, which remains committed to her slogan of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, although she had been part of the ‘remain’ camp before the referendum.
Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has tabled a no confidence motion against Prime Minister May which, if successful, could change the current Brexit trajectory. However, despite her current unpopularity, there is no guarantee Mrs. May would be defeated or that her successor would abandon the Brexit plans. As alluring as it sounds, a ‘No Brexit at all’, scenario, therefore, at this stage still appears unlikely.
Possible Implications of ‘no deal’ for CARIFORUM-UK trade
Due to former colonial ties, the UK is currently most CARIFORUM (CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic) countries’ main trading partner within the EU and is also one of the main source markets for tourist arrivals and foreign direct investment to CARIFORUM countries. Given these historic and economic ties, CARIFORUM and the UK are currently in the advance stages of negotiating a roll-over of the concessions under the CARIFORUM-EU Economic Partnership Agreement which currently define CARIFORUM-UK trading relations until the UK leaves the EU. While details about the roll-over negotiations have been sparse, this agreement has reportedly taken into account the possibility of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It is in the ‘no deal’ scenario that this roll-over arrangement has its most utility as it at least assures CARIFORUM traders of continued preferential market access to the UK if the latter leaves the EU without a transition deal in place.
However, while the EPA ‘roll-over’ preserves the market access status quo, it does not mitigate all the risks of a ‘no deal Brexit’. Without a transition agreement in place, UK goods (and imported goods entering through UK ports of entry) will immediately after March 29, 2019 no longer have free circulation within the EU single market and will revert to World Trade Organisation Most Favoured Nation (MFN) levels – that is, they will be subject to EU import duties and non-preferential rules of origin. This, therefore, takes away the incentive for CARIFORUM firms which, due to a shared language and customs, would have used the UK as a ‘springboard’ for entering the wider EU market by establishing a commercial presence in the UK.
Moreover, because many CARIFORUM countries’ air and sea links to continental Europe are still mainly through the UK, CARIFORUM firms will have to consider what impact these new ‘no deal’ arrangements (such as reimposed customs duties and customs checks) may have on their trade with both UK and EU partners and on their supply chains. New arrangements for aviation and haulage between the EU and UK will also add delays and increased freighting costs. These higher costs will have to be borne in mind in business planning, pricing and other decisions.
One of the biggest threats of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is the volatility of sterling which has seen large drops in value whenever unfavourable news hits the market. If not already done, currency risks will have to be taken into account by CARIFORUM firms when negotiating commercial terms with UK trading partners and in their own risk assessments.
With regard to tourism, the reduced spending power of UK visitors to the region, or any downturn in the UK economy due to fall-out from a ‘no deal’ Brexit’, would adversely impact those CARIFORUM countries where UK tourists account for a sizable market share or where UK purchasers account for sizable real estate purchases. Changes in UK-EU aviation arrangements may also make the cost of travel to the region more expensive for those continental European travellers which have to transit through the UK to reach the Caribbean (those which do not have the benefit of direct flights). As such, it would be beneficial for CARIFORUM countries to expand their direct air and sea links with continental Europe.
In spite of the above, it is not all doom and gloom. There is the opportunity for CARIFORUM to redefine CARIFORUM-UK trading relations by going beyond the mere EPA roll-over and negotiating a new free trade agreement in the future with the new ‘Global Britain’ the May Administration seeks to advocate. It also gives CARIFORUM countries an additional nudge to expand their trading relations with the EU-27 themselves by making better use of the EPA, which is currently underutilised. This is also an opportune time as CARIFORUM, as part of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping, is in the process of renegotiating a post-Cotonou arrangement with the EU.
The takeaway is that the uncertainty continues! With all the news about Brexit, it is not surprising that some firms or persons may experience ‘Brexit fatigue’. It is, however, incumbent on regional firms which currently do business with, or are seeking to conduct business with those in the UK to keep abreast of these developments and to make the necessary contingency plans to ensure minimal disruption to their trading.
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.