Can the UK secure a trade deal with the EU by 2021 and how do they work?

  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Charlie Bayliss

With Brexit now a reality, attention will turn to the second round of negotiations between the UK and the EU.

Britain has just months to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, including thrashing out a new trade agreement with its closest partners.

Some critics have said the short timescale isn't long enough to reach an agreement, although Boris Johnson has said he wants to secure a free trade deal without agreeing to match EU regulations.

ITV News has spoken to Jason Langrish, a trade expert who was involved in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU, which is widely held up among commentators as the gold standard of deals.

So what will the negotiations focus on, how many people are involved in the deals, do personalities play a part and what should we be looking out for?

Jason Langrish was heavily involved in negotiating the EU-Canada trade deal. Credit: Jason Langrish

What chance does the UK have of securing a trade deal with the EU in order to avoid a hard Brexit?

It's not a case of the hard work starting now as there isn't really enough time left, unless the UK is willing to contemplate an extension.

It could be a case of the hard work starts for six months.

Even when the UK government says they want a bare bones agreement, it's like saying we just want a house we can live in. Well, you've got to frame it, put in insulation, dry wall, fit it with electrics and plumbing.

It requires 80 per cent of the work to be done. This idea that the UK could do a simple trade agreement isn't realistic when it comes to such a complex economy.

Trade expert Jason Langrish says it will be difficult for the UK to secure a trade deal with the EU before the end of 2020. Credit: PA

What does a trade deal cover?

In a modern sense, it's much more than trade and covers comprehensive economic agreements that span further than they used to.

That's not how economy works anymore. Now there's supply chains, professional services, public contracts, pharmaceuticals and more. All these different elements form part of an agreement.

Does the UK have the expertise to negotiate a trade deal?

This is one of the biggest problems and is something which isn't talked about enough.

Most of the UK team doesn't have the experience. In the last 10 years, Canada has organised CETA, re-negotiated NAFTA, Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated with Chile and the WTO.

It's a seasoned team of negotiators with an established mechanism coordinating with different stakeholders.

That capacity takes years to build up and the only way to build up is by going through these negotiations.

The UK will be learning as they go along and that's a difficult thing. Unfortunately for the UK, their most important negotiation is also their first.

With regards to the EU, they have 40 years of experience in this area, and some of who are British.

Could the UK gravitate towards the US with a new trade deal? Credit: AP

Can the UK bring in negotiators?

The problem with bringing negotiators in from the outside is whether they will be listened to.

What commitment are you signing up to? There could be a hard Brexit in eight or 10 months time so it's very difficult.

Also, there's a case of people moving as well. Logistically it's difficult but there has been moves made by the British government, but with limited success.

What sort of deal do you imagine the UK could strike with the EU?

A reason why countries use the single market is because it eliminates restrictive elements. It's the main benefit of the EU, and they will not want to compromise that by giving the UK a sweetheart deal, as then other countries will want similar arrangements.

If the UK makes a pivot towards the US, it will compromise its access to EU markets. If access is compromised, it undermines values of trade, even with American companies.

They will want easier access to the larger market of the EU, which is 600m people, not just the 60m in the UK.

There will be some concessions from the EU but it's one thing or another.

The UK food industry is asking the government to set aside competition rules so companies can coordinate supply decisions to combat shortages in the event Britain leaves the European Union without an agreement on future trade relations. Credit: AP

On a basic level, how do these agreements start?

First thing that's usually done is a scoping exercise. Countries will hire an external consultant who will carry out research. This looks at 'if we do this, what will the outcome be, and what sort of outcome can we expect'.

The research might come back as this could be worth £15bn a year. Both sides will go back and launch negotiations and go through in-depth review, talk to stakeholders and discuss a broad negotiating mandate at a cabinet level where they will say these are the areas with what we want to focus on.

In the first round of negotiations, nothing is really negotiated. You familiarise yourself with the other side and establish what are sensitive issues, what is the low hanging fruit, etc.

Different negotiating tables are then created. In the CETA deal, there were 22 tables, including market access, agriculture, regulatory cooperation, government procurement and more.

Sir Tim Barrow, UK Permanent Representative to the EU, left, delivers the Instruments of Ratification to European Council Secretary General Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen. Credit: AP

As you move forward, some of these tables are closed within a year but then as time moves on, you see what sensitive issues are, what do we have and what are the red lines.

That's when negotiations slow down and it becomes clearer what you are willing to do. This is where it's important to have a strong relationship between the negotiators and the politicians.

They will say this is where we are, this is what we are not getting movement on, and what can we stomach politically. In case of the Canada-EU deal, Canada needed to get agriculture into the deal. The EU needed access to government contracts. If this can't be agreed then no deal is signed.

It's down to a small number of issues, all political in nature. It's about finding a path forward.

Then, you know there will be industries which "lose". So what have you got to do? You've got to buy them off. If, for example, its dairy farmers, you'll put together an aid package for them over a certain amount of years.

How many people are involved in trade deals?

In our negotiating rounds, sometimes we (Canada) had 100 people, while the EU never had more than 30 people.

Talks usually start face to face but then you can start using conference calls. Because of the UK-EU time difference, face-to-face talks might be easier.

Are personalities important in trade talks?

They're very important. It's important to have a good working relationship, especially between the chief negotiator and their political masters.

Most chief negotiators know each other as it takes 20-25 years to become one. You don't just choose a negotiator, they're usually bred.

ITV News approached Downing Street about the prospect of the UK securing a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020.

A Number 10 spokeswoman said: "We have been clear that we will not be extending transition period. This is set out in UK law.

"The UK and EU jointly agreed to reach and agreement by December 2020 and we expect that to happen. This was set out in the political declaration."

  • Jason Langrish is the Executive Director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business, an advocacy group that has been deeply involved in the launch of negotiations for a Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement