‘Regulatory alignment’ with EU could be called ‘soft Brexit’

Davis is suggesting any UK trade deal with the EU involving ‘regulatory alignment’ will mimic membership

The attempt to broker a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland strand may well come to be seen as an important crossroads in the whole Brexit process

The attempt to broker a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland strand may well come to be seen as an important crossroads in the whole Brexit process

 

The difference between promising “regulatory alignment” and “avoiding regulatory divergence” is everything. Night and day.

A pity no- one bothered to explain as much to the DUP before Monday’s spectacular falling out with British prime minister Theresa May.

The former – alignment – is the act of an independent state hoping to trade with its neighbour on a level playing field.

The latter, that of a quasi-member state simply automatically copying and pasting new EU legislation into its own statute books.

Crucially, agreement on “regulatory alignment” or “equivalence” is a necessary part and parcel of all trade agreements – no one is going to allow free access to its markets to goods produced to inferior or dangerous standards.

But the legislative language and enforcement mechanisms of both parties may widely differ – what is necessary only is that there should be mutual recognition that their effects match.

“The presumption of the discussion,” Brexit secretary David Davis told the House of Commons yesterday, “was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom. I reiterate: alignment isn’t harmonisation, it isn’t having exactly the same rules. It is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection, all of that sort of thing as well. And that is what we are aiming for.”

Such a deal is still aspirational and will not be easy to negotiate

Davis’s clarification and insistence that his government aspires to pursue the same regulatory regime throughout the UK should help to reassure unionists. But, most significantly, it lifts the veil on a crucial dimension of the broader – hitherto secret or unformed – UK trade talks strategy.

Face value

All we have been told until now is that the UK is determined to sign new free trade agreements all over the world. What Davis is now suggesting – if we are to take him at face value – is that the post-Brexit trade deal they aspire to with the EU, with broad “regulatory alignment”, will in effect mimic membership.

It’s what others have called “soft Brexit”. And it’s close to what the Irish Government has advocated – if not continued membership of the customs union and single market then at least a potential means of doing away with borders between us.

That said, such a deal is still aspirational and will not be easy to negotiate. And it will severely constrain the UK in the scope of its other trade deals around the world, a reality that Brexiters on the backbenches will certainly remind Davis of.

This attempt to broker a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland strand may well come to be seen as an important crossroads in the whole Brexit process.