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The Guardian view on Brexit trade talks: to diverge or not to diverge | Editorial | Opinion


Boris Johnson got not one but two wins last year on Brexit: a fresh withdrawal agreement with the European Union and an election victory that gave him an 80-seat majority in parliament. But while these events matter quite a bit for Mr Johnson and his political future, they did not make much of an impact on the British economy. Mr Johnson’s premiership rests on the nostalgia of Brexit; its true believers think they were better off in an imagined past, before Britain joined the European Community. They will keep backing the prime minister because he says that the trappings of that past can be restored, even without any economic benefit.

That explains why a big part of the story of Brexit is about fishing, farming and factories. Before the UK joined the common market, manufacturing employed about a third of the workforce. That figure has now shrunk to less than a tenth. Farmers and fishermen, who voted enthusiastically for Brexit, make up a tiny proportion of national income – 0.6% and less than 0.1% respectively. Almost all of the rest of us are working in the service sector – which takes in everything from law firms and media companies to cabs and hairdressing. Work has become more precarious, but disposable income, in real terms, is roughly double what it was before we entered Europe.

There are good reasons to aim to recover a bigger manufacturing base in this country and to develop a different, more sustainable agricultural base in a world of industrialised farming, but it is hard to see how such things will be achieved by failing to negotiate a trading relationship with the EU. Brexit does not occur in a vacuum: the global multilateral trading system is showing signs of stress on several fronts, notably the failure to conclude the Doha round of trade talks and a lack of progress in critical areas such as services, agricultural subsidies and digital trade. It would be better for all concerned if Brexit was a temporary glitch rather than part of the new normal.

Once Britain is out of the EU’s single market and customs union there will be winners and losers in the economy. There is a trade-off between access to EU markets and how close to its rules we stick. Barriers to the movement of goods and services between Britain and the EU may not just be at the border of the single market – for example, with tariffs imposed, but also behind the border, where standards and rules of origin have to be met. If Britain were to end up in a similar position to Australia, with no deal with the EU, the Treasury has calculated that GDP would shrink by 7.7%.

Mr Johnson would be wise to take up the offer from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, of a roadmap to a workable and durable free trade deal, which would be the central pillar of this country’s partnership with the continent. It is important to note that since trade talks don’t begin until March, a lot of what was said on Monday ought to carry a health warning that politics coloured its delivery. Mr Barnier said he wanted a “robust commitment towards a level playing field, and the necessary enforcement regime” as well as long-term assurances on fishing. Mr Johnson said that he will maintain the “highest standards in these areas” and EU boats could access UK waters in a system that would be reviewed, as it is now, yearly. The gap between the UK and EU, keen-eyed observers said, was smaller than the rhetoric implied. It would be best if the divide was kept as narrow as possible.

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