Britain’s fishing industry adds less value to the UK economy than the Harrods department store. But its importance to coastal communities almost prevented a Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU. Business will be mightily relieved that an agreement has finally been reached.
The immediate beneficiaries are vulnerable export sectors such as car manufacturing. This employs more than three times the headcount of fishing and was the subject of targeted wrangling by the UK over component imports. The City of London stays out in the cold. The priority of the UK should now be to extend equivalence — pan-European trade passports — until a deal on services can be struck too.
The expectation of a breakthrough boosted sterling on Wednesday and Thursday. Gilts dithered. Shares in domestically focused UK companies jumped, with the FTSE 250 rising 2.8 per cent from the opening on Wednesday to trading on Thursday afternoon. Lloyds, the FTSE 100 lender, rose 11 per cent over the period.
Some investors consider a deal the turning point for an equity market that has underperformed its peers. The FTSE 250 is still about 8 per cent lower than it was at the start of the year. Hopes of a post-pandemic consumer spending splurge are part of the investment case. That should particularly benefit face-to-face services worst hit by Covid-19 social-distancing requirements.
The benefits of a deal should not be overstated. Border costs will still rise steeply. The agreement reduces Brexit’s impact on long-term economic output from 6 per cent to 4 per cent, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
A revival of business investment, which has stagnated since the 2016 Brexit vote, is vital to a sustained recovery. The uncertainty that held it back is lessened by the Brexit deal, but many questions remain — and not only concerning the UK’s external relationships. Elections in May are likely to show growing pressure for another vote on Scottish independence.
Much depends on how the UK takes advantage of its reclaimed sovereignty. Commercial opportunities will arise from new freedoms, within constraints on regulatory divergence. But a high price has been paid for them. The minimal trade deal amounts to a much harder Brexit than many envisaged in the 2016 campaign. The impact must be lessened with a parallel accord on services, particularly of the financial kind.
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This article has been updated since publication to reflect the formal announcement of the EU/UK trade agreement.