The announcement earlier this week that Britain has reached an agreement to join the CPTPP should be marked as the moment when the notion of Brexit cakeism was finally laid to rest. Business and trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, travelled to New Zealand to sign a protocol of accession just as a furious row was breaking out in Conservative ranks over an obscure piece of secondary legislation covering customs controls on parcels shipped into Northern Ireland.
Unlikely as it may seem at first glance, the two events are in fact linked.
Brexit in 2020 saw Britain leave one international rules-based trading organisation and next year we will accede to another, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement between 11 nations: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam dating from March 2018.
The key words here are ‘rules-based’. Other CPTPP members, in particular Japan, Canada and Mexico, warned the government against unilaterally amending the Northern Ireland protocol and said to join the Pacific trade bloc the UK must show respect for international agreements that it has signed up to.
Sunak forced to ditch plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol
So, the government was forced into a choice. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak opted to ditch predecessor Liz Truss’s proposals to breach the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol and begin placatory talks with the EU Commission, resulting in the Windsor framework, essentially an amended version of the Northern Ireland protocol that was agreed in February.
One provision is an obligation to introduce additional controls that Unionists and Brexiters believe will see the province treated as a foreign country. The sea border will become far more visible and intrusive. The partitioning of the United Kingdom is the price of Britain’s accession to the CPTPP.
And so we come to The Postal Packets (miscellaneous amendments) Regulations 2023, a minor piece of much-delayed secondary legislation implementing customs checks on parcels being shipped to Northern Ireland from Great Britain from 31 August. This was actually agreed in Boris Johnson’s original 2019 withdrawal agreement and should have come into force in March 2021 after a grace period. The UK unilaterally extended that, prompting the EU to begin legal action.
To ensure the legislation isn’t delayed again, Sunak this week ‘purged’ five Eurosceptic Conservative MPs who had threatened to vote against the draft statutory instrument in a scrutiny committee, a move that was said to have sparked ‘uproar’ among backbench Conservative MPs. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim, accused Downing Street of behaving like North Korea.
It was the end of the belief that British exceptionalism means we can ignore obligations freely entered into without a backlash. Cakeism is truly finished. It was the clearest possible demonstration of the limits of sovereignty in a globally interconnected world.
The CPTPP – what’s it worth?
The official announcement about the CPTPP sparked off the usual acrimonious exchanges between the pro and anti-Brexit factions on social media.
Remainers can’t understand why Britain wants to be part of a trade bloc thousands of miles away with little economic benefit, while Brexit supporters shout from the rooftops what a fantastic deal has been negotiated.
Of course, anything that increases trade is to be welcomed. That goes without saying. But what grates with many is how a deal that the government’s own projections say will increase GDP by 0.08% in ‘the long run’ can be lauded to the skies, while leaving the EU at a cost of 4% of GDP (50 times greater) is dismissed either as scaremongering or simply wrong – and wrong, naturally, by being too pessimistic.
Even the official forecast of 0.08% growth in GDP in the long term – about £1.8bn – mere chicken feed in a £2.5tn economy – is now being rubbished by pro-Brexit economists like Robert Kimbell. The 2019 strategy document isn’t optimistic enough according to Kimbell because it uses 2014-16 figures from the International Trade Centre which he claims are out of date. Andrew Neil, who pretends to be neutral but pens what look like pro-Brexit articles in the Daily Mail, tweeted the claim although I suspect he doesn’t understand the details himself.
The government forecast probably is wrong but even if it’s 100% out, the range of outcomes is still somewhere between zero and 0.16% growth in our GDP, not even a rounding error in the national accounts. It’s like arguing about the number of fairies dancing on the head of a pin.
The 4% hit from leaving the EU which the Office for Budget Responsibility continues to assume, may also be wrong, but it could just as easily be an underestimate. The fact is that joining the CPTPP will never make up for lost trade with the EU because of trade barriers created by Brexit.
Implementing the CPTPP
The UK’s accession will now shift towards ratification in the UK and other CPTPP member states, a process which is not expected to be completed until the second half of 2024, by which time we may have a Labour government, looking to rebuild ties with Brussels. Anything could happen.
Our chief negotiator, Graham Zebedee, tweeted the next steps.
This includes parliament scrutinising the thousands of pages (I have read estimates of between 6,000 and 18,000) of CPTPP text in the 30 chapters, plus various annexes and side instruments listed on the New Zealand government website.
Legislation implementing the agreement in UK law will also be required and it will be fascinating to see how Conservative MPs and sovereignty purists react to incorporating an agreement in which Britain had no say at all, into our statute book. The accession protocol does give some party specific provisions which seem mainly about geographical coverage and the phasing in of tariff changes.
When the USA were contemplating joining the forerunner to the CPTPP in 2017, an organisation called the Coalition for a Prosperous America said the agreement “erodes” US sovereignty:
“The majority of the TPP’s 5,500 pages delve deeply into the domestic laws of the US and other signatory countries rather than traditional trade issues. Issues include government procurement, investment and banking, food and product safety rules, telecommunications, electronic commerce and administrative rulemaking. Whether you support the new TPP rules is not the issue. Whether the TPP rules impact our ability to govern ourselves under our constitutional system is the issue.”
There is also a collection of documents listed on the UK government website HERE.
Note also in the accession protocol the Windsor framework takes precedent over the CPTPP:
“In the event of an inconsistency between the CPTPP and the Windsor Framework, and amendments thereto and subsequent agreements replacing parts thereof, the CPTPP shall not prevent a Party from adopting or maintaining a measure that is not consistent with its obligations under the CPTPP and relating to the inconsistency, provided that the measure is not applied in a manner that would constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustified discrimination against any other Party or a disguised restriction on trade.”
UK agriculture fears over CPTPP
And the UK government should also be concerned that Canadian farm lobby groups have already begun campaigning to force the UK to accept Canadian meat, according to Farmer’s Weekly:
“The Canadian Pork Council, the Canadian Cattle Association and the Canadian Meat Council said in a joint statement: ‘The main area of concern for our industry is the failure to accept Canada’s meat inspection system, widely recognised as one of the finest in the world’.”
Liz Webster, founder of the lobby Save British Farming, said Canada was playing “hard ball negotiations” to undermine the UK’s high food and animal welfare standards. She says, “For me, this looks like code for ‘drop your hormone ban Britain’. We all know that British farming has the highest standards in the world. Who are they trying to kid?”
Webster maintains, “If Canada says ‘accept our hormone-fed beef’ or they will not ratify it, we should say, ‘no thanks’. We should walk away from a bad deal”.
But having cast Unionists in Northern Ireland adrift, who can have faith the British government will protect UK agriculture when push comes to shove?