October 12th 2020
The United Kingdom has left the European Union and the Transition period will end at midnight on 31st December 2020. That matter is enshrined in an Act of Parliament and, as I have had to explain to many who have called upon me to seek `an extension`, to prolong the exercise would require a further amendment to the Act for which there is currently no parliamentary majority. It would also require the consent of the remaining twenty-seven states of the European Union and that degree of unanimity is not achievable. That being so there remains a matter of days in which a Trading and Relationship agreement may be reached before the decision has to be taken to depart from the EU fully and finally without a deal.
Since the UK voted to leave the European Union many `deadlines` have come and gone only to be replaced by others. A week ago the Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, and the Head of the EU, Ursula Von der Leyen, agreed in London that talks would continue. In the same breath Downing Street confirmed that the deadline for the conclusion of any talks would have to be October 15th – on Thursday of this week. The EU has determined that deal , if there is to be one, has to be reached by the end of October. This is because any agreement has to be ratified by the European Parliament and given the vested national interests of twenty-seven individual Member States that is by no means a forgone conclusion. And if there is no deal then both Britain and the rest of the EU require time to ensure that the basic necessities to enable Britain and Europe to co-exist, including the border controls that will have a potentially congesting effect upon Kent and the Nord Pas de Calais, are in place by December 31st.
The much-vaunted trade deal with Japan, which broadly replicates the existing relationship with that country, and the fishing agreement with Norway do not, while welcome, of themselves go a long way towards the brave new independent future that has been proclaimed for Britain. I have not the slightest doubt that in the medium to longer term this country will reach many international trade agreements and, with Covid 19 behind us, thrive and prosper. We shall have to be careful not to sacrifice the gains claimed by those who fought to take Britain out of the EU and to sell animal welfare, human rights and other matters of significant importance down the river in our eagerness to set ink to paper. We may also, in the light of the breach of trust written into the Internal Markets Bill, have a problem in persuading some nations that our word is still our bond but agreements will be reached, the wheel will be re-invented at considerable cost and in time a new equilibrium will be restored.
In the short term, however, I would suggest that the UK is less than well-prepared for the impact of No Deal. The “Kent Access Pass”, the documentation designed to allow freight vehicles to cross the border into the new Kingdom of Kent en route to mainland Europe, is so far as I can establish untried and untested. It was also apparently only last week that the information packs necessary to enable road hauliers and freight forwarders to implement the `Smart Freight` system were made available to those who need to trial them. It may be, and in the interests of the County that I have the privilege to represent a part of I sincerely hope, that all this goes swimmingly. Government technology, however, does not have a great track-record of first-time success and if you add to that the complex duplication of forms that will be required to ship goods to and from Britain then the prospect of a long queue of freight lorries takes on a horrible potential for reality while car manufacturers struggle to acquire `just in time` deliveries of car parts and the NHS awaits deliveries of pharmaceuticals from mainland Europe. (Kent`s MPs have been warning of this for months but it is not clear that anyone in high places is paying much heed). The alternative possibility is that EU road hauliers suffering from a shortage of freight vehicle drivers and faced with the possibility of seeing their lorries stuck in Kent when they ought to be earning money will choose not to come at all!
The EU has a history of reaching deals at the eleventh hour: I trust that we will not be surrendering our fishing rights to France or any other of the EU coastal states and nor can we allow nations who have relied on hidden state subsidies to prop up some of their domestic industries to tell us how we may or may not support British firms in post-pandemic difficulty. Negotiation is about compromise, however. There is still a deal to be done and in the economic and security interests of both the UK and the EU and of the many UK citizens still living within EU member states, we have to maintain the hope that in these final days those on both sides of the table have the courage and the wisdom to strike that deal.