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As the general election campaign enters its final two weeks, Open Europe's Dominic Walsh examines the commitments on trade deals in the parties' manifestos.
28 November 2019
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Most of the main political parties have now published their election manifestos ahead of the vote on December 12. The Scottish National Party released their manifesto yesterday, while the Conservatives launched theirs on Sunday; the manifestos of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, were published last week. Open Europe have published a full analysis of the parties policies on Brexit, immigration and trade policy here.
There were few surprises in the Conservative manifesto, with their central pledge to “get Brexit done” by passing the Withdrawal Agreement front and central. The manifesto also reaffirmed their much-discussed promise not to extend the transition period. Some have argued that this tight timetable risks the UK and EU defaulting to trading on World Trade Organisation terms at the end of the transition period; I have explored here what this version of ‘No Deal’ might look like, and how it would be different to leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement. Elsewhere, Open Europe’s Acting Director Stephen Booth writes this week that “there is some logic to condensing the negotiating period, keeping things simple and leaving open the option of deeper political and economic cooperation once the dust has settled.”
Questions can also be raised about the deliverability of both main parties’ promises on trade policy. Labour’s plan for an alternative Brexit deal is based on a customs union featuring “joint UK-EU trade deals”. However, it is not clear whether this would be negotiable; an enhanced consultation mechanism might be possible, but a formal requirement for joint agreement or a veto is less likely. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have promised to cover 80% of UK trade with free trade agreements by 2022, prioritising the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. As well as a challenging timetable, this may be a difficult target to hit; the four priority countries only make up around 18% of the UK’s trade in goods and services, while the EU makes up a further 49%.
The Conservatives’ plans for an FTA with the USA have come under particular scrutiny, after the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday produced leaked government documents covering six rounds of preliminary trade talks between UK and US officials. Corbyn claimed the documents were “proof” that the NHS would be “for sale” in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. In reality, the documents merely show that US negotiators asked about aspects related to healthcare, and it will of course be up to the UK Government whether it agrees to US demands or not in future negotiations.
It is also important to be precise on what those US trade demands would be. Talk of wholesale “privatisation” or the NHS being “for sale” is exaggerated. However – as the documents illustrate – US negotiators will want to discuss drug pricing, in order to address their long-standing complaint that the NHS’ approach to procurement drives down international prices. If the UK conceded to US demands, this could increase the prices the NHS pays for drugs and would spark a domestic political backlash. On the other hand, refusing all controversial US demands will make it harder to conclude a deal. These are the kind of trade-offs which will need to be confronted in the next phase of Brexit.
YouGov’s multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) poll for the general election, published last night, suggests that the Conservatives are on course to win a majority of 68. The poll suggests that the Conservatives would win 359 seats, Labour 211, the Scottish National Party 43 and the Liberal Democrats 13 if the election were held today. In terms of vote share, the poll puts the Conservatives on 43%, Labour on 32%, the Liberal Democrats on 14% and the Brexit Party on 3%. MRP is a statistical method which can produce a more detailed seat-by-seat analysis than a normal opinion poll; YouGov’s model accurately predicted a hung parliament in the 2017 General Election.
During last Friday’s televised BBC Question Time leaders’ special, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he would not personally campaign for either Leave or Remain if Labour came to power and held a further referendum on EU membership. Corbyn added that he would instead be “an honest broker” and would carry out the result of the referendum whichever way the country voted.
The UK’s former Permanent Representative to the EU, Ivan Rogers, has warned that the approaches of both the UK and the EU to the Brexit negotiations risk damaging the relationship between the two in the long-term. In a speech in Glasgow, Rogers said, “There has been a resolute failure on both sides of the Channel to think enough strategically – geo-strategically – about a relationship which is enormously important to the western world.”
The Berlin Pulse, an annual survey of German public opinion on foreign policy, suggests that 66% of Germans support greater co-operation with Russia and 60% support greater co-operation with China, compared to just 51% for the UK and 50% for the US. 25% of respondents think that Germany having close relations with Russia is more important than having close relations with the US; 39% think close relations with the US is more important, and 30% think Germany should be “equidistant.”
The European Parliament confirmed the new EU Commission this week. The new Commission, consisting of incoming President Ursula von der Leyen and 26 other commissioners, was approved with 461 votes to 157 and will take over on 1 December.
In a new blog this week, Dominic Walsh has analysed the UK political parties’ manifestos ahead of the General Election on 12 December. Walsh also published a blog exploring what a potential ‘No Deal’ exit after the transition period would look like and how it would compare to leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. The blog was cited in Bloomberg’s Brexit Bulletin.
Elsewhere, David Shiels has explored the future of the UK union after Brexit in a three-part mini-series for ConservativeHome this week. The first piece examines the challenges Brexit has thrown up for the four nations of the UK. The second explores the general election campaign in Northern Ireland, and the third looks at how the Conservatives can make the new Brexit deal work for Northern Ireland and the wider union.
Also writing for ConservativeHome, Stephen Booth argues that the short timetable in the next phase of Brexit is likely to lead to a clear choice between “a relatively straightforward trade agreement or a WTO-terms exit at the end of the transition… everything the EU has done since June 2016 suggests it is loath to adapt its principles in order to have a closer relationship with post-Brexit Britain.”
Writing for Belgian magazine Doorbraak, Pieter Cleppe takes a look at the upcoming UK election, which he said “can be seen as a proxy second referendum on Brexit.” Cleppe was also interviewed by Polish Radio and Chinese CGTN TV, discussing the track record of the outgoing Juncker Commission. He said, “the big failure is of course Brexit, which is partly the result of the EU ignoring British discontent over the ever greater concentration of power and money at the EU level.”