Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
Last week, the Prime Minister announced that in the wake of the pandemic the Government will “double down on levelling up”. It is clear that the domestic political agenda will be driven by this overriding social and economic objective, not to mention electoral imperative, as the country emerges from the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the UK also needs a narrative for its new place in the world, which promotes our interests and frames how we would like to be viewed by others. The question is not so much what Global Britain should “stand for”: the rules-based international system, open markets, defence of human rights and the rule of law. The question is by what means does the UK continue to further its interests and values in the new post-Brexit, post-corona world and how best do we resource ourselves to do so.
Ultimately, medium-sized powers will struggle to achieve their global ambitions on their own: the UK must invest in deepening its networks of alliances and building new relationships to form effective coalitions. And in that regard, next year will be an important one for UK diplomacy.
The UK’s exit from the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021 will coincide with the UK taking on the annual presidency of the G7 and hosting the delayed UN climate summit, COP26. The UK has placed itself at the forefront of the ambition to build a “greener and more resilient global economy.” Meanwhile, the pandemic has also delayed to next year the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference, the organisation’s topmost decision-making body that usually meets every two years.
Trade is the area of UK international engagement most transformed by Brexit, since 2021 marks the point at which full responsibility for trade policy returns to the UK. Brexit also emphasises the need for the UK to recalibrate its relationships with the world’s three major economic and geopolitical hubs – North America, Asia-Pacific, and Europe.
The pandemic has resulted in a steep decline in global trade when protectionism is already on the rise, fuelled by increasing US-China tensions that look set to continue. The current crisis has understandably prompted calls for greater national resilience.
Strategic stockpiling for a limited array of products may be part of the solution. But the UK’s wider interest is served by counting on security and diversity of supply chains. The UK must also seek to influence the terms of trade in services, data and the new technologies, where our comparative advantage increasingly lies. This requires international rules and willing allies to uphold them.
Multilateral efforts at the WTO would be best, but these have faltered in recent years. The Government is therefore embarking on an ambitious strategy of concluding free trade agreements covering 80 per cent of UK trade within the next three years.
As we know, negotiations with the European Union are in a critical phase and while the prospect of a deal before the end of the year looks more promising, it is not guaranteed. Talks with the US have begun and any conclusion will now have to wait until after the Presidential election later this year. The UK may be able to make swifter progress with Asia-Pacific economies.
The top priority is securing a successor agreement with Japan, as the existing EU-Japan deal will cease to apply to the UK in January. Japan is keen to move quickly on a bespoke agreement. The UK has also officially opened negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.
All of these agreements, and a Japan deal in particular, would provide trade benefits in their own right but the bigger strategic prize is UK accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP is the third largest trade area in the world and has been signed by 11 countries around the Pacific rim, including Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Last week, Policy Exchange held a webinar with a stellar cast to discuss the UK’s accession to CPTPP. It was surely significant that Liz Truss, Trade Secretary in this “Get Brexit Done” government, and Lord Mandelson, an arch-Remainer, both stressed the strategic value of the UK joining.
Truss made it clear that she sees CPTPP as “part of a broader strategy of the UK becoming a central hub in a network of free trade agreements, a networked Britain if you like rather than a fortress Britain.” Lord Mandelson emphasised that the process may take time but “the UK aligning itself with a Pacific Rim agenda of this kind is a good thing.”
Chan Chun Sing, the current Singaporean Trade Minister, stressed how keen he would be to see the UK join, while Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister, noted that joining “would be the best possible sign that Britain really does want to be a global country again.”
Joining CPTPP will not be without its challenges. Stephen Harper, the former Canadian Prime Minister, noted that “[j]oining a plurilateral trade agreement is not frankly going to be a matter of a lot of negotiation. The others are largely going to have a take it or leave it approach.” He added, “You can seek tailor-made provisions, but that will add time to what will be a long process”.
Nevertheless, the prize would be hugely strategically significant. Grouping together with like-minded nations would provide the UK with a new platform to promote global trade liberalisation and multilateral reform.
It would enable the UK to join others in addressing China’s global rise from a greater position of collective strength. Indeed, this was an original objective of the project. Although potentially a long process, UK accession might help to convince the US to join the agreement, following President Trump’s decision to pull out of the precursor Trans-Pacific Partnership.
As Harper noted, Britain joining would offer some significant advantages to the existing members. “This would go from being a purely regional pact to now being the beginning of an alternative global order,” he said.
It might be tempting to view “Global Britain” as a distraction or diversion from pressing domestic issues. However, it is a necessary compliment to levelling up. Global Britain does not just mean reaching out to other countries, it means enabling more of the country to benefit from and compete in a globalised world. Moving forward with the CPTPP would demonstrate that the UK is serious about furthering both of these goals.