The past five years since the Brexit referendum have been a steep learning curve for traders and the UK government alike. On the anniversary of that vote, Institute of Export & International Trade director general Marco Forgione sets out five steps the government should take to ensure trade is the fuel for economic recovery and further prosperity
The months and years since that momentous day in June 2016 when the UK voted to leave the EU have been some of the most turbulent in our recent political history. Trade is at the heart of both the reshaping of our economy in response to Brexit and to rebuilding from Covid-19.
Leaving the European Union and its single market has ushered in the biggest changes to the UK’s trading relationships for nearly three generations.
Steep learning curve
For government, and the country more widely, the last five years have been a steep learning curve as the nation has got to grips with what an independent trade policy requires and offers. Brexit has happened and the speed with which the government has rolled over of the UK’s existing trade deals has been a significant achievement, but there is plenty more on the horizon.
This week’s announcement that the UK will commence negotiations to join Asia Pacific trade bloc the CPTPP is hugely welcome, not only for the prospect of accessing a £9 trillion market but also for the ambition to build truly global and innovative trading relationships that it signals.
Trade in services
The prominence of trade in services in both the Australia free trade agreement and the CPTPP is very much looking to the future. This is particularly relevant for UK manufacturers for whom trade in services is increasingly central to their offer.
As we look to build for the next five years, it is essential that the government sets strong foundations.
The decisions and approach taken now will define the UK success in international trade. In March this year, the IOE&IT published its Policy Platform, setting out five steps the government should take to secure success in the next five years.
Five policy steps
1. Establish a new UK trade committee chaired by the prime minister, to give it real cross government clout
The government should strengthen cross-government engagement and decision making, including engagement with industry, by establishing a Whitehall trade committee, chaired by the prime minister, to give greater focus and thrust to trade issues, drive delivery
and ensure cross government support for trade objectives.
2. Provide simple integrated support tools for business, especially SMEs
The government should facilitate access to customs and regulatory paperwork, as well as information on trading opportunities and barriers via simple, integrated, information platforms.
3. Give parliament a stronger voice
Proper parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy and negotiating mandates will bring the UK into line with international best practice and improve transparency and public confidence.
4. Further strengthen the overseas network
Trade should be a priority for the wider diplomatic network and government should deploy more senior personnel to priority markets to facilitate direct dialogue between businesses and host governments.
5. Continue to strike free trade agreements (FTAs) around the world
The focus should be on markets where the UK has high volumes of trade with room for further expansion, and markets where the UK has particular strategic or historical advantages. In this regard, progress towards joining CPTPP is very welcome.