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Brexit and Europe Brexit and Europe

Pursue a free trade and customs agreement with the EU

Last updated: 02:40pm 14 October 2019

We will pursue free trade with European markets…” and “As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.

Conservative Party Manifesto 2017, p.36

Our verdict

This policy poses one of the fundamental challenges around Brexit – can the UK enjoy free trade and favourable customs arrangements with EU countries when we are no longer in the EU?

Before we getting into the detail, let’s be clear what we’re measuring here. The governments says at two points on page 36 that they will “pursue” and also “seek” a free trade and customs agreement with the EU. We’re interpreting these words as an intention to deliver a free trade and customs agreement. We will therefore be basing our verdict on evidence of trade and customs agreements in place, not just evidence that effort has been made to negotiate them.

Now to progress. With the Brexit deadline looming, there are a number of possible outcomes. But the two main scenarios that will determine the outcome of this policy are whether we leave the EU with a deal, or without a deal. Let’s outline them here.

Leaving with a deal. The current deal (the draft withdrawal agreement) emerged in November 2018, and was rejected by parliament. In terms of trade and customs, the key part of the agreement is for a transition period of 21 months – essentially to allow the UK and EU more time to agree the new trade and customs rules. During this transition period the UK would remain part of a “single customs territory” with the EU (as we are now).

If a deal similar to this gets the support of parliament, the status of this policy would remain ‘in progress’ during the transition period while trade, customs, and all other aspects of our relationship with the EU are agreed.

Leaving without a deal. If the government can’t agree a new deal and get MPs to support it, the UK could leave the EU without a deal – though the legislation is in place to stop this happening. Leaving without a deal means the UK would immediately trade with the EU under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. These are the rules under which most other countries trade with the EU – and between each other. WTO rules are certainly comprehensive but would not constitute free trade with the EU. Under this scenario, this policy would be considered ‘broken’.

We won’t be able to reach a conclusion until the conditions of the UK’s departure from the EU are known. In the meantime, this is ‘in progress’. We’ll publish any changes as soon as they happen, so follow this policy for updates.

Seek the detail…

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There's always room for debate

We’re serious about providing clear, up-to-date, non-partisan information. We focus on being consistent and fair in how we reach our verdicts, and always explain our reasoning. But there is always room for debate. So if you see it differently, we’d love you to tell us why. Or even better, submit an edit.