According to the Brexit trade agreement (the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA)), trade between the EU and the UK will remain quota and tariff free. ‘Quota free’ means that trade will not be restricted in quantity by the authorities on either side. ‘Tariff free’ means that customs duties will not be collected by the UK authorities on imports from the EU nor by the EU authorities on imports from the UK.
Article ‘GOODS .5: Prohibition of customs duties’ on page 20 of the agreement states that:
Except as otherwise provided for in this Agreement, customs duties on all goods originating in the other Party shall be prohibited.
This free-trade agreement was taken by many people to mean that trade would be unhindered, with no duties being payable. In fact, as many importers and exporters are finding, trade is not as ‘free’ as it was before January 2021. There are four sources of ‘friction’.
Tariffs on goods finished in the UK
This has become a major area of concern for many UK companies. When a good is imported into the UK from outside the EU and then has value added to it by processing, packaging, cleaning, remixing, preserving, refashioning, etc., under ‘rules of origin’ regulations, it can only count as a UK good if sufficient value or weight is added. The proportions vary by product, but generally goods must have approximately 50% UK content (or 80% of the weight of foodstuffs) to qualify for tariff-free access to the EU. For example, for a petrol car, 55% of its value must have been created in either the EU or UK. Thus cars manufactured in the UK which use many parts imported from Japan, China or elsewhere, may not qualify for tariff-free access to the EU.
In other cases, it is simply the question of whether the processing is deemed ‘sufficient’, rather than the imported inputs having a specific weight or value. For example, the grinding of pepper is regarded as a sufficient process and thus ground pepper can be exported from the UK to the EU tariff free. Another example is that of coal briquettes:
The process to transform coal into briquettes (including applying intense pressure) goes beyond the processes listed in ‘insufficient processing’ and so the briquettes can be considered ‘UK originating’ regardless of the originating status of the coal used to produce the briquettes.
In the case of many garments produced in the UK and then sold in retail chains, many of which have branches in both the UK and EU, generally both the weaving and cutting of fabric to make garments, as well as the sewing, must take place in the UK/EU for the garments to be tariff free when exported from the UK to the EU and vice versa.
Precise details of rules of origin are given in the document, The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA): detailed guidance on the rules of origin.
Many UK firms exporting to the EU and EU firms exporting to the UK are finding that their products are now subject to tariffs because of insufficient processing being done in the UK/EU. Indeed, with complex international supply chains, this is a major problem for many importing and exporting companies.
Rules of origin require that firms provide documentation itemising what parts of their goods come from outside the UK/EU. Then it has to be determined whether tariffs will be necessary on the finished product. This is time consuming and is an example of the increase in ‘red tape’ about which many firms are complaining. As the Evening Standard article states:
Exporters have to be able to provide evidence to prove the origin of their products’ ingredients. Next year, they will also have to provide suppliers’ declarations too, and EU officials may demand those retrospectively, so exporters need to have them now.
The increased paperwork and checks add to the costs of trade. Some EU companies are stating that they will no longer export to the UK and some UK companies that they will no longer export to the EU, or will have to set up manufacturing plants or distribution hubs in the EU to handle trade within the EU.
Other companies are adding charges to their products to cover the costs. As the Guardian article states:
“We bought a €47 [£42] shelf from Next for our bathroom,” said Thom Basely, who lives in Marseille. “On the morning it was supposed to be delivered we received an ‘import duty/tax’ demand for over €30, like a ransom note. It came as a complete surprise.”
In evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee (Q640) in May 2018, Sir Jon Thompson, then Chief Executive of HMRC, predicted that leaving the single market would involve approximately 200 million extra customs declarations on each side of the UK/EU border at a cost of £32.50 for each one, giving a total extra cost of approximately £6.5bn on each side of the border for companies trading with Europe. Although this was only an estimate, the extra ‘paperwork’ will represent a substantial cost.
Previously, goods could be imported into the UK without paying VAT in the UK on value added up to that point as VAT had already been collected in the EU. Similarly, goods exported to the EU would already have had VAT paid and hence would only be subject to the tax on additional value added. The UK was part of the EU VAT system and did not have to register for VAT in each EU country.
Now, VAT has to be paid on the goods as they are imported or released from a customs warehouse – similar to a customs duty. This is therefore likely to involve additional administration costs – the same as those with non-EU imports.
The UK is a major exporter of services, including legal, financial, accounting, IT and engineering. It has a positive trade in services balance with the EU, unlike its negative trade in goods balance. Yet, the Brexit deal does not include free trade in services. Some of the barriers to other non-EU countries have been reduced for the UK in the TCA, but UK service providers will still face new barriers which will impose costs. For example, some EU countries will limit the time that businesspeople providing services can stay in their countries to six months in any twelve. Some will not recognise UK qualifications, unlike when the UK was a member of the single market.
The financial services supplied by City of London firms are a major source of export revenue, with about 40% of these revenues coming from the EU. Now outside the single market, these firms have lost their ‘passporting rights’. These allowed such firms to sell their services into the EU without the need for additional regulatory clearance. The alternative now is for such firms to be granted ‘equivalence’ by the EU. This has not yet been negotiated and even if it were, does not cover the full range of financial services. It excludes, for example, banking services such as lending and deposit taking.
Leaving the single market has introduced a range of frictions in trade. These are causing severe problems to some importers and exporters in the short term. Some EU goods are now unavailable in the UK or only so at significantly higher prices. Some exporters are finding that the frictions are too great to make their exports profitable. However, it remains to be seen how quickly accounting and logistical systems can adjust to improve trade flows between the UK and the EU.
But some of these frictions, as itemised above, will remain. According to the law of comparative advantage, these restrictions on trade will lead to a loss of GDP. And these losses will not be spread evenly throughout the UK economy: firms and their employees which rely heavily on UK–EU trade will be particularly hard hit.
- EU firms refuse UK deliveries over Brexit tax changes
- Brexit: M&S temporarily cuts hundreds of products in NI
- Brexit: parcels of grief
- UK retailers stumped by post-Brexit trade deal with EU
- Pan-EU food supply chains hit by Brexit trade deal
- Customers in Europe hit by post-Brexit charges when buying from UK
- Brexit: The reality dawns
- Post-Brexit customs systems not fit for purpose, say meat exporters
- Baffling Brexit rules threaten export chaos, Gove is warned
- Shock Brexit charges are hurting us, say small British businesses
- Debenhams closes online business in Ireland as 50 major UK retailers face EU tariffs
- The Brexit deal is being celebrated as though it removes all tariffs. It doesn’t
- As Marks and Spencer warns of Brexit nightmare, what are these Rules of Origin red tape issues?
- UK VAT after the transitional period
- The Brexit deal and the services sector
- What does the Brexit trade deal mean for financial services?
BBC News, Robert Plummer (5/1/21)
BBC News (9/1/21)
Turbulent Times, Richard North (8/1/21)
Financial Times, Jonathan Eley and Daniel Thomas (7/1/21)
Financial Times, Peter Foster, Arthur Beesley and Sam Fleming (6/1/21)
The Guardian, Jon Henley (7/1/21)
BBC News, Scotland, Douglas Fraser (8/1/21)
BBC News, Simon Jack (15/1/21)
The Observer, Toby Helm (10/1/21)
The Observer, Toby Helm and Michael Savage (17/1/21)
ITV News, Joel Hills (7/1/21)
Prospect, Sam Lowe (8/1/21)
Evening Standard, Jim Armitage (9/1/21)
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (31/12/20)
UK in a Changing Europe, Sarah Hall (28/12/20)
UK in a Changing Europe, Sarah Hall (27/12/20)
- Agreements reached between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union
- The Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA): detailed guidance on the rules of origin
Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street (31/12/20)
HM Revenue & Customs (29/12/20)
- Explain what is meant by ‘rules of origin’.
- If something is imported to the UK from outside the UK and then is refashioned in the UK and exported to the EU but, according to the rules of origin has insufficient value added in the UK, does this mean that such as good will be subject to tariffs twice? Explain.
- Are tariffs exactly the same as customs duties? Is the distinction made in the Guardian article a correct one?
- Is it in the nature of a free-trade deal that it is not the same as a single-market arrangement?
- Find out what arrangement Switzerland has with the EU. How does it differ from the UK/EU trade deal?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Swiss/EU agreement over the UK/EU one?
- Are the frictions in UK–EU trade likely to diminish over time? Explain.
- Find out what barriers to trade in services now exist between the UK and EU. How damaging are they to UK services exports?