S'pore-EU trade ruling may impact UK

An EU flag  in front of the  regional state administration headquarters in central Kiev, Ukraine.
An EU flag in front of the regional state administration headquarters in central Kiev, Ukraine. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May could get a taste of what's in store for Britain when the European Union's top court spells out how the EU should ratify a free trade pact with Singapore, the tiger economy some want post-Brexit Britain to emulate.

Judges at the EU Court of Justice will say today whether the Singapore deal must undergo a tortuous process of endorsement by national parliaments and regional assemblies, on top of approval from the EU - a step that the United Kingdom would be anxious to avoid as it gears up for its own trade talks with its former EU partners.

"May's objective of a comprehensive trade deal being agreed within two years was never very realistic," said Dr Steve Peers, a professor of EU law at the University of Essex. "If it has to be ratified by all national parliaments, that's even less realistic."

Singapore and the EU have been negotiating their free trade agreement since 2010. An adviser to the EU court signalled in December that individual nations should also ratify it because some aspects, such as dispute settlement, labour and environmental standards, and trade in air transport services fall under national jurisdiction.

A ruling upholding this would be an obvious step back for Singapore, the EU's largest trading partner from Asean, said Mr Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at the National University of Singapore Business School.

"EU-Singapore trade has been growing faster for services than for goods, so any dampener in free trade will affect the services industry more," said Mr Loh.

But the case "is a big deal" for the UK too, because the decision "will clarify a lot of issues that might arise when negotiating a long-term, post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the EU", said Dr Peers. "To some extent, it might map out a 'minefield' of issues to avoid if the UK seeks to avoid all member states having vetoes."

While the formal two-year countdown until Britain leaves the EU was triggered on March 29, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the real political negotiations on Article 50 will start after the UK has held parliamentary elections on June 8.

EU governments are debating a set of directives for the bloc's negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, outlining the method and objectives of withdrawal talks.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore-EU trade ruling may impact UK'. Print Edition | Subscribe