Emma McClarkin is an Conservative MEP for the East Midlands. She is coordinator for International Trade for the UK Conservatives and the wider ECR Group in the European Parliament.
The United Kingdom has always been an outward-facing trading nation, one that has throughout its modern history forged strong and long-standing commercial relations with countries around the world. We sold cloth to Portugal; bought wine from France; sold steel to the US, invested just about everywhere in the world – and now are exporting cars to the Middle East and China.
It is from this outward-looking position that I found myself becoming increasing frustrated with the EU and its lack of drive when it comes to trade. For too long, I have listened to protectionist speeches and politicians determined to slow down an already slower than snail’s pace trade strategy inside the European Parliament. With no trade deals with the USA, India, China, Australia or New Zealand, the European Parliament is actively side-lining the EU from trading networks.
As the coordinator on International Trade for the Conservatives in Brussels for many years, I have seen how difficult it can be to strike deals for 28 different nations with often diverging interests. For five years, we have only been able to point to one EU trade agreement (EU-Korea) that has been a ringing success in terms of ambition and delivery of results for citizens: there has been little other progress to speak of. We can and must do better. Now the vote to leave gives us the chance to take up quickly so many of the opportunities the EU has missed
There are those who argued that Brexit is an inwards turn, or a chance to turn away from Europe and focus exclusively on the world. This could not be further from the truth. We should instead be cementing our trading relations with Europe to the benefit of both sides, while simultaneously strengthening and deepening our relations with partners around the world.
The British people who voted in the largest democratic process in our nation’s history voted against a little Europe and for a global UK. We must immediately begin to implement this decision. We have the chance to make our country exactly what we want it to be, and forging new and exciting trade links with countries, companies and consumers around the world will be a crucial part of making Brexit a success. To do so will require diligent preparation, strategy, foresight and plenty of hard work.
So what is to be done?
With trade powers returning to London and the ability to strike real trade deals once again in the hands of the UK, we must take note of two realities. Firstly, we should explore and utilise the rich network Brussels has to offer in supporting our free trade negotiations. Brussels, particularly post-Lisbon Treaty, has been the focus for international trade for the rest of the world for many, many years and key trading contacts and networks lie in Brussels today. We must not overlook Brussels as a vital tool to achieve our independent trading goals. We can use our long-standing relations to our advantage and to reassure them the UK be open for business, moving quickly to establish fresh networks in Brussels. Many have already been knocking on our doors.
Secondly, we must prioritise resources. Throughout my time as a trade coodinator, I have forever been meeting trade negotiators on both sides who despaired because the EU’s meagre trade resources were spread too thinly. They have simply been unable to devote sufficient time to the depth of negotiations because they have been focussed on too many issues where the UK had no real interests.
For example, the UK, as a global heavyweight in terms of trade in services, has a large stake in the on-going negotiations for the Trade in Services Agreement, known as TiSA. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Australia, a country of 25 million people, had more negotiators at the table than the EU, a bloc of nations comprising of 500 million citizens. How can it be that such an important agreement for the UK could have so few staff dedicated to its successful conclusion?
What this highlights is the pressing and immediate need for the UK to create a strong, resourceful department for International Trade – and I am delighted to see that this will be led by a real free-marketeer in Liam Fox. Staffing and drawing resources towards this department may take time, but in the immediate future, we must use and expand our existing resources in Brussels and our embassies and trade representatives around the world to reorientate our focus. And we must also reassure our long-standing partners and allies that we continue to be a strong place to invest, as well as communicating our strong trade agenda – telling them we are ready and open for business; prepared and ready to strike deals, and that this will mean a recommitment to our old partners in the Commonwealth, where we have established ties that we can and should strengthen.
In order to take our place at the top table once again and seek to negotiate trade deals that will bring the most benefits in terms of jobs and growth for the UK we must be ambitious. The Prime Minister, in creating a new Department for International Trade, has sent a strong signal about our trade ambitions. We must take this opportunity, seize the moment and prove that Brexit means a new global UK and one serious about the benefits and power of trade in a globalised world. Now is the time to deliver.