Prime minister Boris Johnson wants to “get Brexit done,” but with Brexit the unresolved issue of the UK’s future trade relationship with the EU and other countries still remains and is expected to be one of the big concerns at the end of 2020.

If Brexit does happen, the UK will need to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU so it continues to enjoy tariff-free access to its market after the transition period, and will also need to negotiate and sign new trade deals with countries such as the US.

According to Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, the UK will continue trading with the existing terms until the end of the transition period which is due on 31 December 2020. He has already stated that, if he wins a majority, he will negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU which will come to replace the current arrangement at the end of 2020. The deadline for next year is considered among economists and politicians a very challenging one, as the time frame is limited and the subject matter demanding and complicated. As it is usually the case, trade negotiations take years, so it is similarly expected that Johnson’s trade agreement will be a difficult task, impossible to deliver as promised. Of course, it will be possible to extend the transition period, but this should be decided by 1 July.

As a Financial Times article notes, it is difficult to see the EU and the UK reaching a deal in as little as five months, especially when there’s legal and translation issues involved. A draft for an EU-Japan deal took four months and 10 days to prepare, “including ‘legal scrubbing’ and translation into 24 official EU languages — and this is viewed in Brussels as an example of the bloc moving at breakneck speed.”

In the case of Canada’s deal with the EU, this took more than five years to complete and another three before it came into force. For some, the UK-EU trade deal will be even more difficult as the two sides will attempt to establish a new relationship that seeks to replace an older one, while for others, the negotiation will be fast and quick as we are already in sync with EU regulations.

What is an FTA?

An FTA is a multinational trade agreement that creates a free-trade area between different states and determines the tariffs and duties on imports and exports in order to eliminate trade barriers, such as trade taxes or tariffs. While a customs union is more encompassing and requires all parties to have the same external tariffs, a free-trade agreement allows countries to establish whatever tariffs they wish, otherwise adopting a preferential treatment system.

If the EU and the UK are unable to reach a trade agreement within the specified time frame, then the UK will revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms – which means British exporters would have to face the same tariffs as other countries as the US or China. But even with a trade agreement, the privileges that are currently enjoyed under the customs union will be lost.  A trade agreement will mean more costs and more bureaucratic control for UK companies, which is why economists are warning that Brexit will damage the UK economy.

The UK is also in the process of rolling over the EU’s existing free trade deals with other countries in order to avoid losing tariff-free access to the EU after Brexit. The UK has signed 19 continuity deals with 49 countries. The UK’s biggest trading partners are the US and the UK, with the US being the UK's biggest single trading partner, and the EU accounting for 46% of UK exports. The problem with striking an FTA with the US is the obvious standards in food products, especially when in the US regulations are not as strict as in the EU, with the most obvious examples being genetically modified foods and chlorinated chicken.

At the moment, one of the most important Brexit outcomes is considered to be the resolution of a trade agreement with the EU by the end of next year, as the scenario of leaving without a trade deal will not only result in a political crisis for the government, but also an economic one for the whole of the UK.

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