Post-Brexit Trade: An Opportunity to Set New Standards

By Chris Southworth

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, the country is at a crossroads. To deliver success means delivering trade deals fast, and the only way to do that is to be more innovative, explains Chris Southworth, the secretary general of ICC UK, USCIB’s partner in the global International Chamber of Commerce network. This was also the topic of a recent ICC UK podcast featuring USCIB’s Rob Mulligan. The views presented here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect USCIB policy positions.

ICC UK Secretary General Chris Southworth

The UK government has committed itself to renegotiate its entire stock of trade relationships and bring home the largest number of trade deals ever delivered in a short space of time – the task has no precedent.

The first round of post Brexit deals will be with 88 countries and nine trade blocs, covering non-EU countries with EU deals – almost half the world. The scale and pace at which this task must be delivered presents a unique opportunity to be innovative – it’s the only way the government will deliver on its promises of a “free trade model that works for everyone.”

The government has begun the process of passing legislation to set up a new Trade Remedies Authority, share customs data and maintain an open procurement market, but there is currently no proposal for how the government will deliver so many deals in such a short space of time. The government says that the 60-plus countries with EU deals will roll over on the same trade terms, so no extra consultation is required, but that is highly unlikely according to the experts.

In a rare display of unity, business groups, NGOs, unions and consumer groups all agree that to move forward on trade, the UK needs a more transparent, inclusive and democratic framework to handle trade policy if there is any chance of ensuring trade benefits everyone.

The UK has become one of the most centralized G7 countries, with wide disparities across its regions, a stubborn trade deficit and a history of under-performance on productivity and competitiveness. London now dominates the UK economy, with every other region a long way behind. Brexit presents a golden opportunity for trade to play a central role in boosting regional economies as well as address the frustration and disparity that is all too clear to spot, but only if the mode of engagement changes.

If the government wants to deliver new trade deals at the pace and scale required, fresh thinking and reinvented processes are required – those who generate trade will need to be consulted on what works, not only because it is necessary, but because it is democratic. To deliver a trade model that works for everyone means giving stakeholders a say in the decisions.

The Trade Bill

The Trade Bill – currently under review in Parliament – sets out an initial framework for an independent trade policy: a Trade Remedies Authority, an open procurement market, rolling over terms with countries with third party EU agreements sharing customs data. Controversially, the bill also proposes “Henry VIII” powers giving the government the ability to overrule Parliament.

Being a member of the EU means that the UK has no formal structures or procedures for reviewing treaties, and Parliament does not have to debate, vote on or approve deals. Trade agreements are scrutinized via the usual Parliamentary means such as written questions and answers, internal debates and select committee inquiries.

If government negotiators have any chance of delivering trade deals on the scale and pace required, there needs to be a more structured approach that provides organised forums for the international community, business, unions, NGOs and civil society organisations to engage on the issues and make consensus based decisions.

There is a myth that consultation and transparency slows the decision-making process. But without dialogue there is scope for mistrust to grow, which if unchecked, has more than enough weight to derail trade negotiations – as we saw with the lack of public support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). As hard is may be to hear, public services and food standards trumped trade and that is exactly how people expressed their views.

The TTIP negotiations collapsed, losing five to seven years of negotiation with no sign of an opportunity to restart discussions. It was a colossal waste of resources that could have been easily avoided if the engagement process had been better organised and more inclusive from the start.

The Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA) very nearly went the same way. The issues surrounding Wallonia’s role in Belgium that almost derailed CETA could very well apply in a host of UK regions. Good-quality engagement throughout the decision-making process would prevent such scenarios happening in the future and most importantly give people a stake in making trade a success.

Trade policy now influences all walks of life – it’s not possible to separate trade from public policy and it’s imperative to have the public on board if deals need to be done.

International Models

The US trade model is often cited as an option for the UK but it’s not the only country that has a better system of engagement. New Zealand has successfully integrated private sector groups, civil society and the Maori – its indigenous population – into its model for developing trade positions.

Beyond regular public meetings regarding trade policy, the government established a ministerial advisory group to oversee high-level consultations. The group consists of representatives from key export sectors, NGOs, business and minority groups to reflect the overall priorities of New Zealand’s trade agenda, and to provide feedback to the nation’s minister of trade. In short, it’s a more inclusive system.

The scale of the UK challenge provides an opportunity to set a new international benchmark – no country has it completely right. A deal with 27 EU countries, followed by 60-plus countries with EU agreements, and then the rest of the world is a lot of ground to cover in a short space of time – if the UK government is going to return the benefits of Brexit as promised.

In fact, the success or failure of Brexit will hinge on the government’s ability to deliver trade deals – this is central pillar of the Brexit strategy to offset costs incurred from leaving the EU, especially for SMEs. To do that, it means breaking from the past, opening up and building a model of engagement that is more transparent, consensual and democratic in approach – and doing it fast!

Published March 12, 2018

Staff Contact:   Rob Mulligan

Senior VP, Policy and Government Affairs
Tel: 202.682.7375

Rob Mulligan oversees our wide ranging activities on international trade, investment, economic and regulatory matters, and supervises a staff of policy professionals whose expertise covers a host of issues affecting American companies engaged in global business. He also coordinates USCIB policy and advocacy work with the U.S. and foreign governments, our international affiliates.
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