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What Do I Think of the Chequers Agreement?


One could have said at the sight of this latest debacle that the Prime Minister "is a remain-er who has remained a remain-er" that's one way to look at the Chequers agreement. Though she insists "We seek a new and equal partnership ... not partial membership" the question then that can't escape her is, has Theresa May met her own test, or have her red lines turned noticeably pink? 

At best her approach to Brexit doesn't see it as an opportunity, she hasn't grasped enough the case for economic freedom in regulatory reform and trade negotiations. Instead, she treats it as a task in damage limitation, something to be tampered with. 

The latest attempt, the Chequers agreement is definitely a let down–with supporters e.g. Anna Soubry, Douglas Carswell, Michael Gove and detractors e.g. Justine Greening, David Davis, Boris Johnson on all sides of the debate–but really it's not quite as simple as "all good" or "all bad" much of it borrows from the "Swiss-model" plus and minus some detail. 

We've gotten into this position because the cards held by the UK have been given up without being matched with equal concessions from our EU interlocutor. We agreed to pay a £37 billion divorce bill which is no longer tied, as first proposed to the prospect of a trade deal. We agreed to the unconditional security of Europe, incredibly we even agreed to the "Irish backstop" which would leave us, essentially a vassal state worse the leaving or remaining. 

Let's consider it though, in its own right. The Chequers plan maintains a common rulebook on goods and agricultural products, not too different from Switzerland which is a partial member of the EU single market (not a signatory of the EEA) but also has the option to defy Euro-court rulings. This is one area where I'm much more relaxed than most hard-line leave supporters.

Under the current proposal, we may have an arbitration mechanism that refers to the ECJ but that's entirely different from a system that involves direct rulings of the ECJ on British territory. It also allows for incremental divergence over time, with parliament, not the commission, our elected representatives and not unnamed Eurocrats having oversight of the incorporation of these rules into the UK. As HMG put it "the court of one party cannot resolve disputes between the two".

It may indeed make sense to have a common rulebook on goods, most of our goods exports go into the European Union, and these standards are usually set at a global level, anyway. It's not at all likely that even with regulatory autonomy that the UK is going to produce goods at a different standard. For services it's better to push for something like mutual recognition, the United States is already a bigger market for us than Europe.

On agri-foods the proposal doesn't make sense, EU standards are, if anything harmful to our economy, they involve a ban on certain products that meet perfectly reasonable standards, like American chicken. But at least we're pulling out of the Common Agricultural Policy. Restricting us to transcribing EU law would also leave trade barriers (particularly non-tariff barriers) to trade with the rest of the world. As for mutual recognition with other countries standards, this isn't feasible with a common rulebook.

The Chequers agreement also carried the promise of speeding up preparations for a no deal scenario, which so far have been virtually non-existent. That should involve not just preparations for airline slots, international driving licenses, widening the M20 and so forth but also swinging cuts to regulation and tax.

By far though, the most concerning part of the agreement is on customs. We've somehow gotten into a position where we're seriously entertaining the idea of collecting tariffs on products intended for the EU and concerning ourselves with what it does beyond our border. The easiest way to do a customs agreement is to have a free trade deal that involves mutual recognition, not common standards.

Borrowing from a Swiss-style model is in reality not a bad idea, one can't help but notice that at least according to the UN they're the second wealthiest and the second happiest people in the world. So the question then arises, is it better to seed some of these power over to Brussels in exchange for an agreement. Barely but now a line in the sand has to be drawn, it's this or nothing. Chequers or no deal. 

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