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>All the agreements must be sifted, creating a huge legal tangle. With Switzerland alone there are 49 accords, while there are 44 with the US and 38 with Norway. Even in potentially consequential areas, some countries are barely aware of Brexit implications. When asked by the FT about a specific customs agreement, one sanguine Indian diplomat first denied it existed, then said it would not matter anyway: “I’m sure people have forgotten it.”
“The logistics are terrifying, even just to go through these commitments and treaties and scope them out,” says Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, a former trade official for Sweden and the EU now at the European Centre for International Political Economy. “Do you want revisions? Do they? Do you go there? How many visits to Chile will this take? That’s a massive logistical operation in itself.
>“There will be a lot of countries with a beef with the EU or the UK and will see this as a golden opportunity to bring up a nuisance issue. They might not get anything, but they have to try,” he adds. “There will probably be an accident in areas you cannot predict.”
Most prominent — and economically significant — are the trade deals. Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, has promised “zero disruption” by securing transition agreements to continue old trading terms post-Brexit. Britain will in effect repurpose its EU inheritance, re-activating the existing free-trade deals, Mr Fox says. “It is hardly a picture of splendid isolation,” he told parliament this year.
For the most part there is a shared interest in continuing arrangements, since many nations will not want to lose preferential access terms to the UK. Some bigger economies see Brexit as “a window of opportunity”, in the words of one ambassador to the EU. Mr Fox has started preliminary discussions with a dozen-plus countries that want to further liberalise their existing arrangements; South Korea, Switzerland and Norway fall into this category.
“We’d like the best possible terms for our fish. There is a complex web of tariff quotas and red tape, and we’d like to reduce that,” says Oda Helen Sletnes, Norway’s ambassador to the EU. But in a nod to the difficulty of negotiating this while Brexit terms are still uncertain, she added that fisheries discussions would “be complicated by three-way discussions between EU-Norway-UK”. In other words, this is not a straightforward trade-off but a three-dimensional game.
Other countries may be less impressed by the disruption caused, especially on WTO terms. There will need to be give and take. New Zealand, for instance, wants its current quota of lamb sales to the EU to be preserved after Brexit, even though the size of the market will shrink. On top of that, it wants an additional quota for the UK so it can make up for the impact Brexit will have on its flexibility in making sales.
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