‘Not a fairy tale: the road to the TCA and beyond’ – Dr Mario Vella

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 May, 2021 at 9:35 am by Andre Camilleri

The European Parliament’s much awaited ratification of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the European Union and the United Kingdom on 28/04/2021 concludes a long and turbulent negotiating saga. The Malta Business Weekly spoke with Dr Mario Vella, Malta’s Special Commissioner for Economic, Trade and Financial Relations with the UK, and asked him if this was finally the end of the story.

“Well, it certainly has not been a fairy tale. The European Parliament’s decision to consent to the TCA is certainly an important milestone. The TCA, which was concluded on 24 December 2020 after nearly ten months of difficult negotiations, is intended to limit the negative consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. That the European Parliament adopted the consent decision by a large majority (660 votes for, 5 against and 32 abstaining) and the resolution outlining its evaluation of the TCA by a smaller but similarly large majority (578 for, 51 against and 68 abstaining) is very significant.”

However, Dr Vella made it a point to qualify his reply by adding that it was equally significant that the resolution pointedly remarked that Brexit was a “historic mistake,” since the UK was now a third country, and no third country can enjoy the same benefits as an EU member. “In other words,” he added, “we cannot yet say that the story will end with “and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after” story.” He quoted Ursula von der Leyen’s tweet to welcome the European Parliament’s vote, underlining that the TCA “marks the foundation of a strong and close partnership with the UK.”  However, he emphasised the Commission President had also added that “Faithful implementation is essential.”

We asked him if he agreed with the view of Michel Barnier, who led the EU’s negotiations with the UK, that “Brexit is a failure for the European Union.” Moreover, Barnier is quoted to have said that Brexit is “also a mess for the United Kingdom and for us.” Speaking in his personal capacity, Dr Vella replied that he shared Barnier’s concern that that Brexit should be understood as “a warning”. He quoted another remark by Barnier, to the effect that the social conditions and discontent that existed in the UK, and that may have led to Brexit, also existed in many regions of the EU. Barnier warns that this discontent should not be simply dismissed as “populism” : “Our duty is to listen and understand the feelings of the people.”

The resolution adopted by the European Parliament states that the zero quotas and zero tariffs provided for by the TCA are a positive achievement in the circumstances. The rules regarding guarantees on fair competition rules may well constitute a template for future trade agreements. The resolution agrees with provisions on air traffic, consumers, energy and air traffic, amongst others. On the other hand, it regrets the exclusion of development, foreign and security policies from the TCA. It reiterates the preservation of peace on the island of Ireland as one of the European Parliament’s principal goals. It also regrets the UK’s decision not to participate in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme.

Dr Vella stressed that EU member states with significant financial services sectors needed more clarity regarding the way forward in the regulation of EU-UK financial services. Malta is certainly a stakeholder in this field. The TCA itself does not say much in this regard, and discussions on the subject are expected to go on. As regards trade between Malta and the UK, he noted that there are a number of issues that needed to be resolved to the extent that EU rules regarding trade with a ‘third country’ permits.

Regarding calls in the local media for “bilateral agreements on trade” with the UK, Dr Vella observed that member states have granted the EU the “exclusive competence” to conclude trade agreements. “I believe,” he concluded, “that we can, and we should do whatever is possible to take business relations between Malta and the UK to the next level, both in terms of quantity and quality. The conditions for this exist. To start with, however, we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

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