There’s nothing ‘super’ about Boris Johnson’s tired old Brexit ideas

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
Sam Lowe
28 September 2018

If Boris Johnson puts pen to paper and it doesn’t get on the front page of the Telegraph, did it really happen? I guess we’ll never know.

Writing for the paper, Boris Johnson has put forward his six-point plan for Brexit. In brief: he argues that the government should bin its Chequers proposal, which would see the UK remain closely aligned with the EU on goods and agri-food regulation. Brimming with confidence, Johnson urges the prime minister to renege on the insurance policy (backstop) for Northern Ireland – which would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU’s customs union and de facto single market for goods in the event that a solution which removes the need for physical infrastructure and associated checks at the land-border with Ireland fails to emerge – arguing that the future relationship will resolve the Irish border issue. He advocates a free trade agreement along the lines of Canada’s with the EU, leaving the UK free to pursue other relationships around the globe.

If the above isn’t possible, he argues we should ramp up preparations for no deal and retreating to World Trade Organization terms in April next year.

If none of this sounds particularly spectacular, that is because it is not. This is a repackaged formulation of the same argument we have heard from the more extreme wings of the Brexit debate for the best part of the past two years.

And the problems with such an approach haven’t changed either.

The first is that Johnson’s so called “Super Canada” approach would require physical infrastructure and associated checks at the Irish border. It would be a necessary consequence of the UK extricating itself from the EU’s common external tariff, regulatory regime and shared systems of governance, oversight and enforcement.

Johnson is adamant that available technology and new schemes will obviate the need. If this is immediately possible, why do checks still happen at the EU’s land borders with Norway and Switzerland? This is despite these countries having much more comprehensive trading relationships with the EU than Johnson envisages for the UK.

The simple truth is that a future, arms-length, free trade agreement with the EU is certainly possible, but it requires Northern Ireland having its own, distinct arrangement. And his intervention will harden, not soften, the EU’s resolve to agree a backstop as an insurance policy. This fact perhaps explains the reluctance of some in the DUP – which currently opposes any sort of customs or regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – to support the Institute for Economic Affairs paper which underpins much of Johnson’s argument when it was published earlier this week.

Second, there is still no reason to think that a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU is in the economic interests of the UK.

While Brexiters like to moan about the government’s projections – that a free trade agreement style relationship would see the UK around 4.8% poorer in the long run than we would have been otherwise – no coherent argument has yet been put forward to suggest why putting up new, substantial barriers to trade with our most important trading partner will actually be a good thing.

There is also cognitive dissonance at play. New (in practice, probably quite shallow) agreements with countries far away are often assumed to deliver massive benefits, while retreating from the most comprehensive economic grouping of countries on the planet is seen as no big deal.

Of course, Johnson tries to downplay the new barriers to trade with the EU, deploying a range of trade jargon that sounds impressive to the non-expert reader, but serves solely to sugarcoat proposals that are either misleading, overly optimistic or entirely unobtainable.

For example, he says that the deal “should include extensive provisions on services, based on the Canada-style negative list approach – in which the assumption is that all service sectors are opened up except those specifically listed”. This is certainly achievable, but in reality would not come close to replicating the access currently enjoyed by UK services exporters. This is because, while such an agreement could ensure that the EU doesn’t, for example, limit the number of UK-based banks establishing in its territory, it wouldn’t address the significantly more substantial new regulatory barriers to trade associated with selling from the UK into the EU post-Brexit.

Chequers is a fudge, and, as we’ve seen, is not popular with the EU. But to its credit, it at least displays some understanding of the compromises and trade-offs inherent to delivering Brexit. Johnson, however, is still pushing a vision where actions have no consequences, and pretending that attaching the prefix “Super” to words substitutes for measured policy proposals.

Sam Lowe is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.