One of the big differences between what are broadly termed the “hard Brexiteers” and the rest of us is the belief that agreeing new trading arrangements with the EU will be straightforward because the UK has already eliminated tariffs between and has full regulatory equivalence with the rest of the bloc.
Putting tariffs aside, for the moment, it is the regulatory equivalence part that I struggle to understand.
EU Member States have full regulatory equivalence. Therefore, so the argument goes, the UK can simply apply the same standards after EU withdrawal and jobs a good ‘un.
Well, not really, no.
Can you see the problem? It is pretty fundamental. EU Member States apply equivalent regulations. EU Member States participate in joint programs and apply standards that reference and are ultimately policed by common surveillance, enforcement and dispute resolution mechanisms.
Countries that are not in the EU do not.
Upon leaving the EU, the UK will no longer be an EU Member State, and will no longer have (nor would it want) access to the same administrative infrastructure as the remaining EU Member States.
The UK will need to develop and, crucially, if the UK government wishes to preserve a similar level of trade with the remaining EU Member States, agree alternative arrangements for buying from and selling into the EU. What form these new arrangements should take is in itself a non-trivial problem.
In short, the UK cannot continue to work with the EU as if it were an EU Member State once the UK is no longer an EU Member State. (I keep wanting to say, “capisce?”). So the fact that we start from a position of regulatory equivalence is not the shortcut that Liam Fox and some others appear to imagine.
I am not sure how else to attempt to express what, to me, seems like such a simple idea. There are people I know personally, fellow Brexiteers, people of good faith, who are on the other side of this divide. If we cannot at least try to reach an understanding, there seems to be little hope of moving forwards.
It is because the regulatory equivalence that is currently assured by the UK’s status as an EU Member State is not a shortcut, that the UK government would be best advised to attempt to join EFTA, so as to participate in the collaborative structures that are already part and parcel of the EEA agreement. Joining the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement would shortcut many of the complicated technical challenges associated with reversing what was always intended to be irreversible, without doing undue damage to the British economy.
If you imagine that very little needs to be done in order to establish the new policy-making and regulatory frameworks that the UK will inherit when it returns to being an independent country, then you haven’t yet begun to grasp the extent of EU influence and entanglement in the British political sphere.