The Times led with a piece on its front page today about a coup for the Brexit secretary David Davis. "The Times has learnt", the piece said, "that Britain will be free to sign trade deals during the Brexit transition period without permission from the European Union after a climbdown by Brussels."
So far, so exciting.
Except... we knew this already. Everybody knew this. No one was arguing that we couldn’t sign new deals. It was one of the key points of having a transition period after Brexit. What was argued (and what is still the case) is that they can’t come into force until we leave.
As the Prime Minister has stated before, we leave the European Union on March 29th 2019. That’s the date that we leave the Common Commercial Policy, the Customs Union and the Single Market. The transition period that is being arranged is to allow a period of alignment on the latter two. On the former, that will cease in March next year.
If we’re to have a transition the terms must meet current rules until its end.
In practical terms you can negotiate with who you like, however you like, whenever you like. What matters is the enforceability of anything signed. I can sign any piece of paper promising to remove the UK’s tariff or non-tariff barriers with another country’s government. But they’re not mine to replace. At present, as part of the Common Commercial Policy, they’re not the UK’s to negotiate either. Until we’ve left the EU, and we’ve finished the transition period, nothing arranged with countries like the USA, Australia, China or India could be binding or come into force. The whole point of this process is the return of control after a set date.
It’s welcome to know that the EU isn’t going to try and lock our negotiators out of rooms with third countries but they never were going to, or if they were going to try they’d have failed. But this isn’t news. It’s stating the bleeding obvious.
The only thing that’s new is that the EU has confirmed it won’t try and sanction any deals signed, that they’ll ignore them until the end of the transition period and let them come into force without any recourse. That’s all perfectly sensible, and perfectly neighbourly. They understand that Brexit is happening, it would be good if some of our political class could catch up.
We’re in the final phases of the transition deal being ironed out, David Davis will be in Brussels on Sunday and after that we’ll hopefully know when we can bring new deals into place. As the new text released today suggests in paragraphs 3 and 4, the EU won’t negotiate on behalf of the UK during the transition period and the UK will need authorisation to become bound by deals it negotiates before the end of the transition period. Otherwise these will have to wait until that period ends. This is reasonable and it's time limited. It provides certainty to both parties, businesses and citizens and means a good lead-in to any deals the Department for International Trade can negotiate in time.
To understand what powers they can have we’ll need to know the limits of the Free Trade Agreement being sought between the UK and the EU, and we’ll need to know which powers will be Westminster’s to negotiate on behalf of the whole of the UK, and which powers will be ceded to devolved administrations.
Once all that is in place we can start to really talk with other countries, and we can start to see what global Britain looks like in practice.