The UK has been forced to reopen its trade deal with Ukraine, one of its most sensitive post-Brexit agreements, after errors were found in the original text, The Independent can reveal.
The pact was signed by prime minister Boris Johnson in October last year, and lauded as a key example of Britain’s post-Brexit trade and foreign policies. The agreement not only covers the commercial relationship between Britain and the eastern European country but also defence cooperation to support Kiev’s sovereignty.
It followed the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, an area still internationally recognised as part of Ukraine. It also came amid a deterioration in relations between Moscow and London in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
UK-Ukraine ties were again thrust into the spotlight last month when Russia claimed it had fired warning shots at a British vessel that passed close to the Crimean peninsula.
Underscoring the political importance of the agreement in October, Johnson said the UK was “Ukraine’s most fervent supporter”. He added: “Whether it’s our defence support, stabilisation efforts, humanitarian assistance or close cooperation on political issues, our message is clear: we are utterly committed to upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
However, two officials told The Independent that the pact was already having to be reworked after mistakes were noted in the drafting of trade chapters. Some of the errors are a result of copying and pasting sections that bind the UK to EU rules, the same officials said.
Problems emerged when the trade department sought to create guidance on how the deal should be used by businesses in February and March after it came into force in January. However, the fact that the deal needed fresh negotiation and drafting was not made public by the Department for International Trade (DIT).
One of the same government officials said this was a deal that “no one wanted to get wrong” – particularly as it was subject to especially close scrutiny by the European Union, they added. Separately, an EU official told The Independent they had noted that the agreement bound the UK to rules in some areas they had not expected it to.
A spokesperson for the DIT said: “It is standard practice for small sections of agreements to be amended and updated over time to reflect developments, or to add greater clarity that is helpful to businesses.”
However, one of the officials, who is familiar with the agreement’s development, said the changes that needed to be made were not minor, and could have a significant impact on businesses. They added that they amounted to errors rather than an update.
One business with operations in Ukraine, which the official did not name due to commercial sensitivities, had also flagged additional issues with the text, they said. The issues touched on trade in both services and goods, the official confirmed.
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said: ”This is not the only time the government has made basic errors when rolling over our EU treaties, but it is by far the most serious.
“Of all the 67 non-EU countries with whom the UK signed rollover agreements in 2019 and 2020, the Ukraine deal was the only one considered of sufficient strategic importance to be signed by the prime minister himself, making it all the more astonishing that it is now having to be rewritten,” Ms Thornberry added. “This act of gross incompetence needs to be not just immediately rectified, but urgently explained.”
The sensitivity of UK-Ukraine relations was underlined in the government’s recent integrated review of its defence and foreign policy strategy. One section on Russia notes that Britain will increase support for countries in eastern Europe – including Ukraine, “where we will continue to build the capacity of its armed forces”.
Sam Lowe, senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said that mistakes in trade deals are “unfortunate but not entirely uncommon”. He added that it was “unsurprising that it had happened with a rollover agreement” because these have tended to include more copying and pasting of text than fresh deals.
“It’s a deeper agreement than others and includes commitments to follow EU rules in some areas. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt it’s that the UK government doesn’t like to be bound by EU rules,” Mr Lowe said.
A former senior Australian trade negotiator told The Independent that it is correct that agreements sometimes need to be amended, but that substantial changes aren’t often made so soon after the text of an agreement is finalised.
The ex-negotiator said this might be indicative of the trade department’s rush to secure agreements in order to ensure continuity after Brexit. Small, incorrect changes or a failure to make the right change in treaties can cause “big headaches”, they said. Given the rush to roll over agreements, the public should expect other trade deals to be revisited in the coming months, they said, adding: “Copy and paste can be dangerous.”