Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Why I don't like Free Trade Agreements


I had quite an interesting exchange with David Bannerman, the Tory MEP for the East of England, on Friday evening over Twitter. We clashed over the use of a Free Trade Agreement in any UK-EU future relationship scenario. Mr Bannerman is under the impression that a 'Super Canada' (as he calls it) type deal is both available to us and ideal for our post-Brexit EU trade. Of course, he is entitled to his opinion, but I do not share his position. And given that our interchange was unfortunately cut short, I thought it would be of some use to clarify why.

The initial battle line in our dispute emerged when another user asked for my thoughts on his Super Canada aspiration. Bannerman had been at an event with Barnier's Chief of Staff and an assortment of Brexit minister from other member states, after which he tweeted that all were hopeful of an ambitious FTA. This he labelled Super Canada. I responded:

"What is there to say? FTAs are retrograde, macroeconomically ineffectual and limited in the level of market access they can achieve. There really is no Super Canada."

Bannerman then hit back, explaining:

"Utter nonsense. Retrograde?! Why does EU indulge then with FTAs all around the world? CETA gives 99% access to EU Single Market; 92% in agriculture due to French protectionism. U.K. is being offered 100% tariff & quota free - an open market. So none of the 19,753 EU tariffs of CU."

My comment summarised most of my dissatisfaction with FTAs, but really there are four good arguments against their utilisation, especially within the context of Brexit. The fourth point, which I forgot to add in the moment, was that the enforcement regime which couples any FTA is not suitable for post-Brexit trade relations. This is because both the EU and UK are operating with intricate, often JIT, supply chains which are vulnerable to even the most subtle of disruption. Evidence of this need only be sought from 2016, when the French introduced enhanced passport checks at Dover and the lorry queues reached 17 miles, not all to too far from my home in Kent.

I do not need to use this blog for excessive repetition and so I do not feel it is necessary to go over the effects on the enforcement regime when we transition from the safety of the Single Market to the bristle harshness of an FTA. If you are new to this blog, I have written about the re-organisation of customs and regulatory formalities in such an event here and here. Suffice it to say that any exercise in reverse engineering of trade relations such as this will facilitate the re-imposition of controls at the point of the border, precisely where supply chains are so fragile.

British manufacturing has grown used to rapid movement of goods, and of components and processing inputs which go into goods. Reliance on Just in Time production methods, which are designed specifically to reduce storage costs, has strengthened as a result of the effectiveness of the EU's market surveillance programme and Customs Union, which work in symbiosis with one another. For exporters, the resultant level of comfort cannot be afforded by FTAs. It is conceptually impossible for an FTA to produce frictionless borders between trading partners.

Away from the border, the macroeconomic benefits of FTAs are small at best and pitifully unworthy of years of negotiations at worst. CETA, provisionally applied between the EU and Canada, is expected to boost European GDP by as little as 0.03%, a figure so small it pains one to think about the value in years of arduous negotiations, which incidentally remain threatened by Italy's heightened faith in geographical indications. A 2007 Copenhagen study projected a boost of a mere 0.3% for European GDP upon the application of the EU-Korea FTA, then (and still) an example of a pretty ambitious FTA.

If Mr Bannerman is under the impression that any 'Super Canada' will boost GDP then he would be naive. Any exit from the Single Market is bound to hit GDP by at least 5%, a figure which could plummet to 10% if we fail to mitigate the effects of becoming a third country with targeted customs cooperation and various elements of mutual recognition. Furthermore, analyses from other EU member states tend to demonstrate quite similar trends. A report on the impact of six EU FTAs on the Dutch economy concluded:

"The estimated impact of six envisaged bilateral EU Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) on the Dutch economy is small. If all six envisaged FTAs were to take effect simultaneously, Dutch real GDP would grow by around half a percentage point." 

Here we are talking about minuscule figures which appear to bring to question whether or not bilateralism is actually worth much. And that is the whole point: There is a reason I refer to FTAs as retrograde. They are not fit for purpose in a world which increasingly organises standard setting with a top down approach. As mechanisms seeking to globalise agreements on regulatory practices develop, it becomes far more important for countries to participate in multilateral arenas in order to exert as much influence as possible on the trading system.

Non-tariff barriers have clearly emerged as the common enemy in modern trade. Bannerman points to the benefit of a zero tariff continuum, and he is not incorrect in doing so, but his focus is misplaced. As I have written about elsewhere, regulatory protectionism is the real issue for us to worry about. The effects of NTBs on the cumulative costs of trade are far higher, both nominally and as a percentage, than any effects felt by residual tariffs. Indeed, with tariffs we can at least pinpoint certain sectors - particularly agriculture - where improvements can still be made.

Actionable and inactionable NTBs are scattered right across trade like a painted mood board. It is true that not all can be dealt with. Sometimes by virtue of differences in national legislation, culture and language, sometimes by virtue of geography and sometimes by virtue of national efforts to protect domestic industry (as in the case of America and their refusal to adopt European car manufacturing standards developed by UNECE). Every day their navigation slows the cogs of trade and actively harms the economic development of - in particular - LDCs.

The point here is that if one is to make tariff elimination a priority, then leaving the Single Market is made an entirely pointless pursuit. The fact of FTAs remaining effective eliminators of tariffs is more a reflection of low external walls than it is of the effectiveness of bilateral negotiations. Bannerman refers to a zero tariff regime as an "open market" but this is highly disingenuous. A market plagued by technical barriers to trade, from administrative hurdles to documentary checks to licensing practitioners and establishments, is no open market at all.

All indicators point towards the future depending far more on multilateral sector-specific agreements, especially if we are already wasting years of discussion on FTAs. If anything, MFN constraints now placed upon the scope of FTAs further demonstrate the futility of bilateral negotiations. Equal treatment amongst new generation FTAs is advanced primarily as a means of achieving some kind of level playing field, but in reality the whole process of two WTO members going 'beyond WTO' with an FTA to begin with will leave imbalances for countries vis-a-vis its trading partners.

Since FTAs scoop together multiple issues and sectors, negotiations are more likely to encounter friction and important issues are overlooked. Agreements on sector specifics, sometimes called Partial Scope Agreements (PSA) and sometimes referred to simply as 'unbundling', are mostly technical in nature and are thus better equipped to close loopholes otherwise exploited by criminal activity. Global unbundling is on paper a massive diplomatic effort, and this is indeed true in application, but so are FTAs, which have proven to be far less effective.

I have had discussions with trade negotiators online which have revealed to me that speed is the name of the game. If a negotiation is to fail it must fail quickly. The same is true of success. By building sector and issue-specific concords from the groundwork laid in global regulatory agencies, countries can reach precise agreement on technical regulations more easily and flex their diplomatic muscles by influencing standards at their very genesis. With bilateralism, years of effort is absorbed and little gains are made across the board. Unbundling can help to promote the opposite.

UNECE, a regulatory forum I retain quite a lot of interest in, has shown real promise in its combative approach to issues like documentation for use by cargo ships and labelling standards. This isn't of course to say that everything can be achieved in a reasonable time frame. Some barriers will persist simply because they must do so. But we have to look to the future and sensible alternatives to present methods must form part of that future. Brexit, if it does anything, gives the world a chance to rethink trade efforts and examine new possibilities.

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