Alignment is the process whereby the rules and regulations in the UK will be kept in line with those in the EU, even after we leave. We will be able to make changes – the recent Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill passed in the Scottish Parliament gives Scotland the powers to do so, but we may choose to be selective in how we use those powers on the basis that there are advantages to alignment.
Some degree of alignment of standards is required regardless the form our eventual relationship with Europe takes. At the lesser end of the spectrum, if we don’t have a trade deal with the EU but still want to export to them, we will need to meet certain minimum standards – for instance it is the inability to meet key standards that means that US beef isn’t accepted into the EU*. At the other end of the spectrum, were we to look for a customs union with the EU then we would need to be fully aligned with their rules and standards. Regardless the type of deal we seek with the EU it will certainly be easier (and thus quicker) to negotiate if we are highly aligned to begin with.
It's likely that we can lessen our alignment with the EU and continue to have tariff-free trade with the EU, however the challenge is that the quickest trade deal to agree will be based on full alignment and unless we extend the transition period at the end of 2021 we could still face leaving without a deal. In the run up to the General Election much was made of the projected ability (or otherwise) of Prime Minister Johnson to achieve a trade deal with the EU by 31 December 2020, the point at which the transition period ends. One side pointed out that trade negotiations typically take years, and the other repeatedly claim that it will be much simpler when we are already fully aligned with the EU – it’s certainly a unique position.
Many brexit supporters are hoping that the UK quickly becomes much less aligned, perceiving EU rules and regulations as a significant source of cost for the UK economy. During the referendum campaign there was a clear promise about ‘less red tape’ and this group would likely prefer we lost the trade deal than retained the EU regulations. After the general election however, Prime Minister Johnson has a healthy parliamentary majority and may not be as vulnerable to pressure from ‘hard brexiteers’ as both he and Theresa May had in the past and retaining rules and red tape that we could otherwise get rid of may be the cost of being able to expedite a trade agreement. The position will become clearer as we move into 2020 and get a clearer view of the type of future agreement which will be pursued.
*Beef which meets the standard can be imported into the EU, however the quantities which meet this specification, i.e. which aren’t hormone treated, are insignificant.
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