A health warning! Today the airwaves will be full of people pronouncing with total certainty, and often in outraged tones, on a possible trade deal text they have not yet had the chance to read.
The mooted UK-EU trade deal is necessarily long – and that is a good thing. It is long because it is comprehensive, covering not just trade, but co-operation in aviation, social security, energy and much else.
Still, a consequence of its length is that hardly anyone, on either side of the Channel, will yet have digested its contents.
Will that stop them sounding off? Of course not. Human beings tend to start with their gut feelings, and then cast around for ways to rationalise them.
Today the airwaves will be full of people pronouncing with total certainty, and often in outraged tones, on a possible trade deal text they have not yet had the chance to read. Pictured: EU and Union Jack flags are seen in front of the Houses of Parliament in 2019 as pro and anti-Brexit demonstrators take to the street
This deal will be no exception. Indeed, the two wings of the Brexit debate have already got their attack lines ready.
Hardline Europhiles will say that this agreement represents a disaster for Britain, a withdrawal from the world stage, an unprecedented act of self-harm.
They would have said that about any imaginable deal because, in their eyes, nothing could conceivably be as attractive as EU membership.
Hardline Eurosceptics, for their part, will say that it represents thraldom and vassalage, that it is ‘Brexit In Name Only’ and that the Government has betrayed Leave voters.
Again, they would have said that about any imaginable deal because the withdrawal process has hardened them against wanting cordial relations with our closest neighbours.
So where does the truth lie?
The first and most obvious point, worth reiterating, is that, a week tomorrow, Britain will recover its sovereignty.
The word ‘sovereignty’ has an exact meaning. It is not a loose synonym for ‘power’. It means the ability to make and enforce your own laws.
Under this agreement, EU law will cease to apply on British soil. Our courts will no longer give precedence to Brussels’ rulings over our own parliamentary statutes. European judges will no longer tell us what we can do.
Although the Withdrawal Agreement created a technical role for the European Court of Justice in a narrow field to do with EU nationals already living in the UK, this treaty – contrary to widespread expectations – seems not to allow it any further say.
Britain is very clearly becoming independent.
At what price? Here, we should be honest. By agreeing to the timeline proposed by Brussels in 2016, and by accepting that the UK was responsible for what happened on the other side of the Irish border, Theresa May put her successor in a needlessly weak position.
Brussels already had much of what it wanted before the trade talks began. As a result, the EU was able to impose a separate regulatory system on Northern Ireland, to insert safeguards against British competitiveness and to grab a share of our fish as we left.
Michel Barnier delivers a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on December 18, 2020
Still, given the hand they were dealt, UK negotiators seem to have played it deftly.
The suggested increase in our fishing quota will be gradual, but the principle that Britain controls its marine resources is clear.
Given that we currently lack the capacity to land the catch to which we are theoretically entitled, some phasing seems sensible.
It is worth remembering that most trade deals – like the one we have just signed with Japan, for example – include what are called ‘non-regression’ clauses, meaning that the two parties agree not to weaken their regulatory standards.
The more controversial element here is the EU’s demand that Britain follows suit when it tightens its rules in the future.
Brussels wants and seems, subject to arbitration and various other qualifications, to have obtained the right to impose tariffs if it deems that Britain is undercutting its standards.
By agreeing to the timeline proposed by Brussels in 2016, and by accepting that the UK was responsible for what happened on the other side of the Irish border, Theresa May put her successor in a needlessly weak position. Pictured: Boris Johnson with Ursula von Der Leyen in Brussels
To see how truly pointless this is, though, consider it the other way around. Britain has an equivalent right to impose tariffs on the EU if, for example, it considers European animal welfare standards to be lower than its own (which they are). But why would it want to?
After all, tariffs are paid by domestic consumers, not foreign companies, leaving people with less money to spend on other things, and thus damaging their nation’s wider economy.
Indeed, it cannot be repeated too often: tariffs always do the most harm to the place that imposes them. Yes, there is some incidental cost to exporters from abroad, but it is never as high as the cost to the local economy.
The EU’s ‘sanction’ against a competitive UK is thus one which would mainly serve to make Europeans poorer.
In just over a week’s time, Britain can expect to become the only country not subject to Brussels jurisdiction that has full free trade with the EU: Zero tariffs, zero quotas. That is no small thing.
With luck, we can now end the debilitating culture war that has raged for four-and-a-half years. Yes, there will be disagreements in future. But we can leave them to trade specialists and cover them in the business pages. For the rest of us, it is time to move on.
- Daniel Hannan is a former Conservative MEP, teaches at Buckingham University and serves on the UK Board of Trade