Former Department for International Trade permanent secretary Sir Martin Donnelly has said he believes prime minister Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement with the European Union buys time for the UK to decide its future relationship with the bloc.
Yesterday May announced that a political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU had been agreed with the European Commission and was being shared with leaders of the 27 other EU member states ahead of a special meeting of the European Council on Sunday.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Donnelly – who stepped down from his role at DIT last year – said he believed the Brexit proposals that May is seeking backing for would offer continuity for UK firms.
However, he cautioned that the proposals’ 20-month transition period beginning at the end of March next year would effectively only buy the nation time to decide what kind of future relationship with the EU it wanted.
“The good news is that life carries on in the same way for businesses,” he said. “Essentially, during the implementation period we have the right to negotiate trade deals with third countries, ready for implementation a soon as we want to.
“But you can’t have a trade deal on goods with a third country and still be in the European Union’s customs union.
“All the evidence we have is that following the EU’s rules is what businesses wants to do and needs to do to stay competitive in what is by far its most open market.”
Donnelly, who has previously likened leaving the EU to pursue new trade deals as like “giving up a three-course meal” in return for “the promise of a packet of crisps in the future”, said he was unaware of great strides DIT has made to forge new global trade deals.
But he added: "I would say the evidence is that in the last two years or more, since the referendum, there are no signs of trade deals outside the EU that do anything like supporting jobs and investment in the UK in the way that staying inside the EU’s trading does."
Also speaking on the Today programme, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said he believed that staying in the European Union was better than leaving with May’s current withdrawal agreement. Instead, he advocated returning to the EU for what he described as a “negotiated no-deal”.
Announcing the agreement of her full political declaration with the European Commission yesterday, May said the deal would create a new free trade area with the EU with no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions, that would be “the first such agreement between the EU and any advanced economy in the world”.
The prime minister said the deal would mean the UK left the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy and that the nation could “get on with” negotiating deals during the implementation period.
“Crucially, the text we have agreed also has an explicit reference to development of an independent trade policy by the UK beyond this partnership with the EU,” she said.
“So we would have the ability to sign new trade deals with other countries and capitalise on the opportunities in the fastest growing economies around the world.”