Brexit – a guide for the perplexed

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Brexit – a guide for the perplexed

I am writing this the week before Christmas whereas you will be reading this in early January. So events may have overtaken me. But here goes: in the middle of December the political situation in the UK was so uncertain that the outcome of the Brexit process could have gone one of four ways. The possible outcomes were: Mrs May’s deal, no-deal, Norway or Bremain. Which was more likely?

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The vote on the Withdrawal Agreement (that’s the May-Barnier deal published in mid-November) did not take place on Tuesday, 11 December, as planned. As a direct consequence of postponing that vote Mrs May was challenged in a vote of no-confidence by Tory Ultras (that’s the roughly 100 Tory MPs who coalesce around the European Research Group (ERG)). 

In the event, Mrs May survived by 200 votes to 117 on 13 December. That meant that, excluding the “payroll vote” of some 180 MPs who are ministers or officers of the crown, most Tory backbenchers actually voted against their Leader. Under Conservative Party rules, however, Mrs May only required an absolute majority of MPs to back her and, having survived, she cannot be challenged again for 12 months, despite the feeling before Christmas that her personal authority had been compromised.

So, barring some kind of coup (as I submit this Labour has tabled a no-confidence motion), it will be Mrs May who will steer us through Brexit which is scheduled to take place at 23:00 hours on 29 March 2019. But what are the chances that Brexit will be postponed or even reversed altogether? And if it does take place – which type of Brexit will it be?

And who will be the winners and losers in the corporate world? Given that the outlook for global stock and bond markets is not particularly encouraging in 2019 – Brexit aside – most of the risk is on the downside. As I write during the week before Christmas global stock markets are falling and retail stocks are being hammered – but not because of Brexit. There may, however, be some canny players who can profit in a time of uncertainty.

Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement

If you have been penguin-watching in Antarctica these last two months you may have missed some political drama back home.

It was during the afternoon of Tuesday, 13 November that the news flashed up on our screens that a Brexit deal had been struck between the UK Government and the EU’s negotiating team led by Michel Barnier. Mrs May emerged from a marathon five-hour cabinet meeting on the evening of the following day to announce that the cabinet was on-side. Brussels announced there would be an exceptional summit on 25 November to endorse the deal – which it duly did.

The first cabinet resignations came that Thursday morning: significantly that of Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary – the man who was supposed to have negotiated the deal. (We now know that Mr Raab had been kept in the dark by the PM – as had his predecessor, Mr Davis.) Mr Raab was quickly followed out of cabinet by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey. A further half dozen or so junior ministers resigned subsequently.

Mrs May then began a series of statements to the House of Commons, all of which were met with hostility from all sides. What emerged was that the deal, if ratified, would entail that the UK would remain inside the EU Customs Union, not just for the transition period up to December 2020, but indefinitely until such time as a Canada-style trade agreement was concluded between the two sides. And even then, the “Irish backstop” would determine that the UK could only leave the Customs Union with the consent of the EU…otherwise there would have to be a customs border down the Irish Sea.


Until such point, Britain would have to conform to all EU rules while having no say whatsoever on their formulation. On the plus side (from the Brexiteers’ point of view), freedom of movement was to end and the UK would be able to disentangle itself from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Common Fisheries Policies (CFP) and the European budgetary cycle after the transition period. There was no guarantee that British fishermen would be able to fish in British waters without the competition of their European counterparts – that would be determined later. On the minus side (again from the Brexiteers’ point of view), during the transition period, the ECJ would retain jurisdiction over UK laws.

John Redwood MP wrote in his diary on 14 November, speaking for about 100 plus Tory MPs:

This is a bad deal. The government should drop it now. Parliament is unlikely to pass the necessary legislation for it. I will vote against were they to try. If we can’t get a good future partnership before we pay them any extra money, why would we get one once we have signed away the cash?

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The debate on the meaningful voteon the Withdrawal Agreement began on 05 December. It was in its fourth day, on Monday, 10 December when the vote was pulled. This is what Mrs May told the House of Commons in a statement that day:

I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in this chamber and out of it, by members from all sides. From listening to those views it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue – the Northern Ireland backstop – there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.

Now it is true that a large majority of the 100 plus prospective Tory dissenters – not to mention the 10 DUP members – were exercised by what was effectively an EU veto on the UK ever leaving the Customs Union unless it de facto ceded sovereignty over Northern Ireland to the EU. But the backstop was by no means the only reason why to ratify this deal would have been an act of supplication.

For a start, there would have been no possibility of making trade deals which gave third states preferential treatment over the EU itself, even after the point where a Canada Plus-style trade agreement were agreed – and even if no backstop were to come into play. This is because the Withdrawal Agreement forbids the UK from negotiating tariffs (import duties) lower than those obtaining on EU goods.

Labour made clear that it was going to vote the deal down. Not because of the backstop – but rather because the Labour leadership believed that they could get a better deal. How they might achieve that remained unclear. As the Daily Telegraph’s Juliet Samuel explained,[I] Labour MPs like Hilary Benn complain on the one hand that they don’t like the deal because the backstop is of indeterminate duration. And on the other they complain that the deal is unacceptable because it doesn’t tie Britain into the Customs Union permanently. Or, Yvette Cooper MP said that she didn’t like the deal because it didn’t guarantee access to the EU’s security databases. Then she admitted that Mrs May had been trying to achieve that but mocked her for being rebuffed. Labour does not come out of this chapter with much dignity.


So the notion that all Mrs May might have to do next was to get assurances about the backstop from her fellow heads of government in Europe was always far-fetched. There would have to be a substantive review of the mechanism by which the backstop triggered. Assurances were never going to be enough.

Frau Merkel listened politely to Mrs May in Berlin on 11 December and then trotted out the tired formula that Brexit negotiations were a matter for Monsieur Barnier and his team – and that individual heads of government (even the Bundeskanzler), could do nothing to interfere. Similarly, Mrs May’s appeal for help to the assembled EU leaders in Brussels on 13 December fell on deaf ears. Herr Juncker accused her – much to her chagrin – of making nebulous demands…

The evolution of the European Union

The European Union (as it has been called since the Treaty of Maastricht, 1992) – or the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was originally called – came about a decade or so after the foundation of the UN at a time when Europe was still rebuilding after the devastation of World War II (WWII). Britain was not a signatory to the Treaty of Rome (25 March 1957) which brought the EEC into existence. The original six were: France, West Germany (Germany was split between the capitalist west and the communist east), Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Five of those nations had been occupied by Nazi Germany in WWII – still a very recent memory.

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Britain, Ireland and Denmark joined the EEC in 1973. Norway was planning to accede at the same time but its people voted to stay out in a referendum. Greece joined in 1981; Spain and Portugal in 1986. East Germany (the DDR) acceded to the EU when Germany was finally re-united on 03 October 1990. Sweden, Finland and Austria acceded in 1995.

The former Eastern Bloc countries: Poland, the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia joined on 01 May 2004 – as did the Mediterranean island states Malta and Cyprus. Bulgaria and Romania acceded in 2007. Croatia was the most recent recruit in 2013.

Britain is not the first country to leave the EEC/EU. Algeria, which was a part of France until it achieved independence in 1962, left immediately thereafter. Also, Greenland, a Danish dependency, having achieved home rule from Denmark in 1979, withdrew from the EU in 1985 but remained subject to a number of EU treaties.

A number of countries have tried to join the EU but negotiations have run into the sand. Morocco was rejected in 1985, though apparently it still aspires to join. Turkey has been a candidate member of the EU since the mid-1980s but no one now believes that it will become a full member and its desire to become one has dimmed. Montenegro and Serbia are currently officially negotiating to join but in the last two years Serbia has pivoted towards Russia.

The issue of the Irish border

I don’t really recall the matter of the Irish border having been discussed during the referendum campaign of 2016. But since the UK withdrawal negotiations began in June 2017 the Irish border has emerged as the key factor in shaping a final agreement. The EU negotiating machine – whose key players were Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr and Sabine Weyand – Federalists to a man and woman, and lawyers all – came up with what I call the trope of the Irish border.

This is the idea that it would be entirely unacceptable for a farmer from the Republic, driving a consignment of lamb or milk from County Monaghan to County Armagh, to fill out a customs declaration online. (Even though he has to submit a VAT return online as things stand today.) Why? Because that would constitute a “hard border” which – so it is argued – would be a flagrant violation of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (1998). And yet, as I understand it, there is nothing in the Good Friday Agreement about customs arrangements. Whatever, the EU negotiating gambit worked.


What makes the trope of the Irish border even more absurd is that only a very small proportion of the Republic’s exports actually cross that border.Most Irish exports to the UK are shipped from Rosslare to Fishguard (Pembrokeshire) or from Dublin to Holyhead (Anglesey). Irish trucks bound for Europe tend to go Dublin-Holyhead and then Dover-Calais. There are also freight ferry links from Rosslare to Roscoff and Le Havre in France.

Moreover, only about 27 percent of Northern Ireland’s exports are sold to the Republic of Ireland[ii] while the rest-of-UK remains Northern Ireland’s biggest market by far. So the volume of goods crossing from Belfast to Liverpool and from Larne to Stranraer (Dumfries & Galloway) is much bigger that the volume of goods crossing the Northern Irish border. If there were to be a customs border between Northern Ireland and the UK that would be much to Northern Ireland’s disadvantage.

The Customs Union

The Customs Union is a fundamental mechanism of the European Economic Community (EEC) as established under the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and, since the Treaty of Maastricht (1993), by the European Union (EU). No customs duties are levied on goods bought and sold within the Customs Union. Unlike a free trade area, members of the Customs Union impose a common external tariff on all goods entering the EU from third-party states.

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Such tariffs or import duties are collected by the governments of the member states and paid over to the EU less an administration fee of about ten percent. A precondition of the Customs Union is that the European Commission negotiates for, and on behalf of, the EU as a whole in all international trade deals and occupies a single seat at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Member states have no competence in trade negotiations individually whatsoever.

Turkey has access to the tariff-free exchange of some goods via its membership in the EU–Turkey Customs Union (1995). Similarly, Ukraine enjoys mostly tariff-free trade in goods under the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement (2014). The EFTA countries are not inside the EU Customs Union.

One of the curious effects of the Customs Union is that most of us, when we go shopping at the supermarket, have no idea which goods are subject to import duties and which are not. Suffice to say that, if the UK were to leave the Customs Union, those delicious Kenyan pineapples would be about ten percent cheaper while those Dutch (hydroponic) sweet peppers would be ten percent dearer. It is not unimaginable that we might be able to reconfigure our supply lines accordingly.

The Norway Option

The chattering classes have been talking about a pivot towards the Norway Option, even as a temporary arrangement, as a way of getting out without a cliff-edge Brexit – assuming that Mrs May’s deal will not get parliamentary approval.

A number of distinguished commentators have consistently advocated membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA)since 2016 – amongst them Dan Hannan MEP and Cristopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph. The oft-repeated argument is that we could join EFTA automatically since we were a member of the trade bloc from its inception in 1960 to the moment we joined the EEC (as it was then) on 01 January 1973.

The EFTA countries[iii] – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein – are members of the EU Single Market and of the Schengen Area, but they are not in the EU Customs Union. That means that they have to harmonise their commercial regulations with those of the EU, on which they are consulted, though they have no direct input into their design. They enjoy border-free travel to Schengen states (unlike the UK and the Republic of Ireland) and they are committed to the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital and labour (the latter being termed freedom of movement). However, there is a mechanism – akin to the emergency break so desired by Mr Cameron – according to which they can limit migration from EU states in certain circumstances. Most importantly, since they are not subject to the tariffs agreed under EU trade treaties, they are able to make free trade agreements (FTAs) with third-party states.

Norway is neither in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) nor the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Norway had two referendums on whether to join the EEC/EU – one in 1972 and another in 1994. In both referendums the metropolitan areas voted for EU membership but the coastal communities – Norway has one of the largest fishing industries in Europe – were opposed. Norway jealously preserves its fish-rich territorial waters for Norwegian fishermen alone. There are many British fishermen, not least in Scotland, who envy that.


The Daily Telegraph reported on 01 December that eight cabinet ministers – including Chancellor Hammond – had discussed a “Norway Plan B” given the negligible chance of the May-Barnier Withdrawal Agreement passing through the House of Commons. According to the report, these cabinet ministers believe that the Norway model could win the support of 70 Labour MPs, the DUP and even some SNP MPs.

The Norway-plus idea advanced by Nick Bowles MP and others is that we would be out of the political institutions of the EU and no longer bound by the mantra of ever-closer-union – but that we would remain in the Customs Union temporarily. We would not be subject to the ECJ. We would have to make financial contributions – as Norway does – but they would be relatively modest. Under the EFTA/EEA framework Britain could suspend free movement if it causes “serious economic or societal difficulties”. Supposedly, Liechtenstein has invoked this cause for the last 22 years.

It seems that the EFTA members would have no objection to our membership. However, the EU would oppose it as it would erect a supposed “hard border” in Ireland. (The Republic would be in the Customs Union but Northern Ireland outside.) Once again, the wretched trope of the Irish border trumps all.

There are arguments against the Norway option on both sides. The Bank of England (a bastion of Remain) thinks that the City could be disadvantaged since we would be a rule-taker (as indeed we would be under Mrs May’s deal). Brexiteers, like Steve Hilton, argue that not even Norway likes Norway.

The Single Market

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The European Single Market, Internal Market or Common Market was only finally achieved on 01 January 1993. It guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – the “four freedoms” – within the European Union (EU). The single market encompasses the EU 28 member states (including the UK), and has been extended, with exemptions, to Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through EFTA and to Switzerland through bilateral treaties.

A number of potential EU accession candidates have Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the EU, which allow for limited participation in selected sectors of the Single Market. These include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. In addition, through three individual agreements on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU, the former Soviet states of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have also been granted limited access to the Single Market in selected sectors.

No-deal

New terminology evolved at the end of 2018 to describe various no-deal scenarios. Accidental no-deal means that we muddle through the late winter and spring and then wake up on 30 March to find that trucks cannot cross from Dover to Calais because they do not have the right paperwork – and no one on either side of the Channel knows what the correct paperwork looks like.

Mitigated or managed no-deal means that, come the day, truck drivers will be equipped with all the necessary documentation and that customs checks on both sides would be conducted by officials expeditiously.

In principle, the UK could take up its own seat at the WTO in Geneva on Monday, 01 April 2019. From that day onwards the UK could endeavour to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU (which is the stated intention of the Political Declaration) as a WTO state – dealing directly with the world’s largest trading bloc. Since both sides would start from a position of enjoying identical regulatory regimes (and the UK would not seek to modify regulations for its own sake) that task should be completed much more swiftly than, for example, the EU-Canada FTA which was signed in 2016 after seven years of wrangling.

All this begs the question of whether a Withdrawal Agreement is necessary at all. When the British Empire was dismantled in a kind of closing-down sale during the 1950s and ‘60s, there were no withdrawal agreements – just treaties that recorded the change of jurisdiction and the transfer of state assets from the British Crown to the newly independent states. Of course, Britain should meet any outstanding obligations, as should the EU; and, of course, the framework agreements regarding, for example, cooperation in scientific research should be perpetuated wherever possible.


I note, however, that it is Europe that is kicking the UK out of the Galileo Programme – much against its will – not Britain flouncing out. That is not necessarily a bad thing. One of my advisors in the realm of aerospace – an ex-NASA guru – informs me that the UK is better off out of Galileo and pursuing its own alternative system with new partners. A fresh start could incorporate much new technology available since the Galileo system is already out-of-date.

It is true that even the best mitigated no-deal would cause some dislocation in supply chains for the first 3-6 months or so: but that is not necessarily an excessive price to pay for the greater prize – the ability to reshape our trading relations in a way that maximises opportunities for us.

Our Japanese friends who have invested heavily in the UK should not fret: tariffs are not really the problem at all as these are generally modest and can be easily budgeted for. The impact of tariffs on the export of Nissan cars will be much inferior to the competitive advantage conferred by the depreciation of the pound since 2016 of around 15 percent. The real issue is that goods should still flow freely – tariffs or not.

Bremain

In the run-up to Christmas there was a groundswell of Remain-oriented sentiment in favour of a second referendum.

On 11 December, Sir John Major (PM 1990-97) declared that Article 50 should be revoked forthwith. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) had ruled the day before that the UK could unilaterally rescind Article 50 without the agreement of the EU-27 – but not in order to stall for time in further tedious negotiations. It is likely, however, that if parliament decided to revoke Article 50 in order to hold a second referendum the Europeans would buy that.

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Those who argue in favour of a second referendum – a so-called People’s Vote (as if the first one was not a people’s vote) – do so because they believe that there is a fighting chance that the 52-48 outcome might flip back to Remain.

There is very little evidence, however, that public opinion has shifted fundamentally on this – as Professor Curtice of the University of Strathclyde occasionally reminds us. Personally, I have encountered many people who voted Remain who are appalled by European arrogance during these negotiations. True, many of us underestimated how difficult it would be to unpick the thousands of agreements that bind the UK to Europe in every domain – but that, in itself, has shed light on the extent to which governments from the 1980s (including Mrs Thatcher’s) transferred powers to Brussels without adequate national debate.

For those who advocate the People’s Vote there are three main questions.

First: on what basis would a second vote be a more legitimate expression of public opinion than the first? Why not hold a third if the desired result is not achieved? We know that this has been a tactic used by the EU elite – for example in Ireland and Denmark. When the French rejected the European Constitution in 2005 the EU just re-packaged it as the Treaty of Lisbon and drove that through anyway.

Second: what would the question be? If it is another binary choice between Mrs May’s deal (which Labour opposes) and Remain, then that would surely be unacceptable to Leavers who oppose Mrs May’s deal. If it were a three-way choice between No-deal, May-Barnier and Remain, then what merry Hell would be unleashed if the British people, in their infinite sagacity, accorded 33 percent for each option? I contend that there is no question format which could achieve consensus. The outcome would therefore be moreconfusion and recrimination.

Third: what does Remain mean? Is it to go back to the balmy days of the status quo ante bellum? It is by no means clear that the British rebate and exemption from the Euro and the Schengen Agreement would still be available. On one reading of the Maastricht Treaty (1993) Britain’s opt-out from the Euro will expire in 2023. And what about Mr Cameron’s emergency brake on EU migration negotiated in February 2016? Is that still on the table?

Even more contentious: will we have to sign up to President Macron’s European Ministry of Finance with its tax harmonisation agenda? And will the European Army be able to deploy British regiments in conflicts; or to summon Europe’s largest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, at whim?

A second referendum is a very bad idea – and talk of Remain-after-all is simple-minded. As I wrote in December, even if you believe we have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire that is not an argument for jumping back into the frying pan.

The UK’s arteries of commerce

When people talk about the impact of a no-deal Brexit they usually foresee that there will be gridlock in Kent (principally on the M20 and M26 motorways) as the flow of goods between Dover and Calais grinds to a halt. And it is true that most freight transported on wheels passes through Dover, the other ferry routes such as Harwich (Essex) to Hook of Holland and Newcastle-Rotterdam having been downgraded in recent years. But less than 45 percent of our trade is conducted with the EU and less than half of that travels by truck.


The UK now has state-of-the-art deep water container ports at Felixstowe (Suffolk) and at the new London Gateway upstream from Tilbury (Essex). Liquid natural gas (LNG) comes into the Isle of Grain (Kent) and most crude oil imports and chemicals are received at Immingham (Lincolnshire) and at other major refinery sites such as Milford Haven (Pembrokeshire).

As people who live in Kent (like me) know – the French closing the port of Calais is a fairly frequent event. Operation Stack – when Kent Police force all trucks to pull over to the hard shoulder on the A20 – has been triggered an incredible 211 times in the last ten years. This is usually because a Leninist French trade union is having tantrums about its privilèges…We could do better to re-route much of our Dover-Calais exports to Antwerp and Zeebrugge anyway…

The long and the short of it…

Of course, things may have changed by the time you read this: but where I am (pre-Christmas) it looks like no-deal is the most likely outcome. The House of Commons will pass as many motions as it likes – like Turkeys registering their moral disapproval of Christmas – but, in the end, it will mean nothing.Come 23:00 on 29 March – Big Ben will chime (or maybe not since it is under renovation – how very British…).

But if I turn out to be right and we shall awake to a no-deal Brexit on 30 March, let me tell you which stocks will bomb…

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First and foremost the major German automotive manufacturers will nosedive – that’s BMW (ETR:BMW), Daimler (ETR:DAI) andVolkswagen (ETR:VOW) and Porsche (ETR:PAH). In any case, I suspect that there are more scandals to emerge from these privileged players who are part of the deep German state…What is clear is that corporate governance in Deutschland AG is going down the drain…

Then dear old Rolls Royce (LON:RR.) will be in the firing line. A senior Airbus Industrie (EPA:AIR) exec told me over lunch in France over the summer that they are “losing patience” with the performance of RR’s “problematic” Trent 1000 aero-engine. But cut RR some slack: they are supplying that engine, despite problems, to most of the new generation of Boeing 777 Dreamliners. RR will survive – though no thanks to Europe.

Logistics companies like Stobart Group (LON:STOB) will come under severe pressure – but, on the other hand, global shippers, especially Chinese ones, like Evergreen Marine (TPE:2603) will take up some of the slack when the European blockade begins.

On the long side (as I shall share shortly) I am beginning to think that supermarkets may have been oversold. The pivot away from European foods to home-grown ones could do wonders for margins. I cannot understand why downmarket supermarkets like ASDA (owned by Walmart (NYSE:WMT)) stock no organic British pork but instead offer vile Dutch and Danish pork products which have been raised in wretched conditions. If Sainsbury’s (LON:SBRY) does not do something about that after the proposed merger I shall be wearing agilet jaune at their next AGM.

But Waitrose/John Lewis (private) gets it. I think that one of the big themes of 2019 will be ecology – and if the European blockade against the UK reduces food miles, that will be great for the environment. Any supermarket chain that can correctly claim to have reduced plastic packaging will be kicking at an open goal…

Unfortunately, the stock markets are likely to be quite stressed in 2019 for reasons well beyond Brexit. But then, if you don’t like the heat, you can always get out of the kitchen.


[i]See Hard Remainers should be careful what they wish for, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, 15 December 2018, page 21.

[ii]See ONS at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/internationaltrade/articles/patternsofnorthernirelandtradebydestinationproductandbusinesscharacteristics/2012to2016

[iii]The European Economic Area (EEA) is EFTA minus Switzerland.

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