Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Global Britain took an important step forward yesterday. A draft UK-US trade agreement was launched at simultaneous events in London and Washington. The agreement was drawn up over several months by ten market-oriented organisations: the Institute of Economic Affairs, Centre for Policy Studies, Adam Smith Institute, Initiative for Free Trade and Politeia here, and Heritage, Cato, Manhattan, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute in the United States – the first time, as far as anyone can remember, that all those mighty foundations have worked together on the same project. I am typing these words in DC, having just spoken at the launch in the Senate.
The treaty unveiled yesterday – and it is a full treaty, not just a proposal for what a treaty should contain – would be the most comprehensive ever signed. Most trade deals combine elements of mutual recognition (what goes in your country goes in ours) with chunks of standardisation (this product may not be exported unless it conforms to certain regulations). These days, trade deals often also have chapters on issues that are nothing directly to do with trade, such as environmental rules, labour laws and human rights.
Our treaty, by contrast, is purely about mutual recognition – and goes further in this regard than any previous accord. It establishes the principle that, for commercial purposes, whatever is legal in one jurisdiction should automatically be legal in the other. It extends this reciprocity to goods, services and professional qualifications. It amounts, in effect, to an agreement to trust one another’s regulators.
That last point is critical. People are generally prepared to trust countries that they regard as advanced and safe. Most Brits will accept mutual recognition with, say, Canada more readily than with, say, Cambodia. (In theory, a case could be made for letting in all Cambodian exports and relying on our robust common law system to punish cases of injury or tort, just as with domestic produce; in practice, voters wouldn’t wear it.)
Most British people place the United States in the Canada rather than the Cambodia category. That’s why the fatuous campaign against “hormone-treated American beef” hasn’t taken off. Too many of us have been to the US and eaten burgers while there; and we suspect that the opportunists who are suddenly pretending, Clegg-like, that US food standards are a threat, have also tucked into the odd steak while stateside.
If you’re dealing with a nation that broadly shares your outlook, your values and your wage levels, you don’t need to lay down extra standards – standards which, in practice, are almost always drawn up by existing producers to raise barriers against potential competitors. Nor do you need to tack on extraneous declarations about human rights or labour laws. It’s not that these things are unimportant; on the contrary, it’s that they’re important enough to be addressed in their own right rather than tacked on to a treaty about something else.
Will the two governments adopt our plan? No, not in its entirety. You never get 100 per cent of what you want in politics. But if they adopted 70 per cent of it, a great deal of wealth would be unlocked. There is enthusiasm in Washington for a comprehensive deal with the UK, both from Trumpsters (keen to prove that they’re not protectionists) and from anti-Trumpsters (keen to compensate for the attitude now being adopted vis-à-vis China and Mexico). On the British side, the main issue is the extent to which we end up tied to EU standards for the minority of our trade that involves physical goods.
Because everything in Britain is now seen through the prism of 2016 referendum, that issue is, for many people, definitive. Any proposal for a free trade agreement is presented by the media as a Eurosceptic objective, and people range themselves for or against it accordingly. Many commentators who would otherwise be the loudest cheerleaders for global free trade now resent the idea because they associate it with Brexit and dislike the people arguing for it. Conversely, some UKIP types who were wont to mutter about the danger of selling our energy companies to the French are more comfortable with global commerce than they used to be.
The case for a free trade agreement with the world’s largest economy – a country which is also our chief investor and the chief recipient of our own overseas investment – should not depend on whether you voted Leave or Remain. The great advantage of a UK-US trade deal is the one suggested by those investment statistics, namely a high degree of convergence resting on the English language, the common law, a shared business culture and a similar attitude to property rights.
Are there other countries of which the same is true? Yes. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada are all common law, Anglophone, market-based societies, with compatible professional credentials. Hong Kong qualifies in terms of market interoperability, despite its problems with its neighbour. A case might also be made for Israel, which we tend not to think of as a former British territory, but which shares the same common law courts and the same commercial norms as the others and which is, for business purposes, effectively English-speaking.
In time, we might expand the nexus further. But that line-up alone would account for a third of the world’s GDP. Isn’t the idea of a properly open free trade system among these countries worth pursuing? A system that, because it is not based on extending regulations, would avoid the corporatism that has crept into many recent trade accords? A system that would work for consumers rather than for multi-nationals?
To those who are still saying “Yeah, but how is that better than what we’ve got now in the EU?” I’d say three things. First, it’s a pointless question. The decision to leave the EU was made in 2016, so the issue now is whether free trade with other countries is desirable in itself. It takes a strange sort of petulance to resist something that would maximise our prosperity because you’re still sore about the referendum outcome.
Second, mutual recognition is preferable to standardisation. A loose association of states drawn together by free exchange and free competition is a very different beast from a customs union that sees common economic standards as way to deepen political integration.
Third, most Britons feel a greater cultural affinity with Anglosphere nations than with the EU. There is, for example, strong support for reciprocal free movement of labour within the English-speaking democracies. Now you might call that support irrational. On what logical basis do we argue for free movement with Australia rather than Austria? The answer, surely, is that feelings of identity are not logical. On the contrary, they are precisely that – feelings. The fact that they cannot be easily rationalised doesn’t make them any less real.
Look at what now lies within our grasp. Instead of an ill-tempered union based on coercion, we can join a loose association based on commerce. An association that brings together our truest allies, and that rests on shared values. Our partners are willing, indeed impatient. What are we waiting for?