Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
The end of the transition period means that the UK is now in full control of its trade policy for the first time in nearly 50 years. Understandably, since the referendum, the majority of the Government’s trade diplomacy has focused on securing legacy market access arrangements with the EU – to the extent possible – and beyond it.
The Department for International Trade has worked successfully to ensure that the UK retains preferential access to the non-EU markets previously covered by EU trade agreements. As of 1 January, the UK had signed agreements with the vast majority of these markets – over 60 countries. Mirroring the last-minute rush to secure a trade deal with the EU, the UK clinched deals with Norway, Iceland, Canada, Vietnam, Singapore, Mexico and Turkey all in the month of December 2020. All are important trading partners for the UK.
In the last week, the UK has added two more to the list, finalising agreements with Albania and Ghana. This leaves only Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, where the UK has yet to replicate or improve upon the previous arrangements. Overall, virtually all trade previously covered by EU agreements continues to be subject to preferential terms.
The majority of these deals faithfully replicate the existing EU agreements. However, some of these UK-only deals have contained innovations. For example, the UK’s trade deal with Japan went substantially further than the EU deal in the area of digital trade and includes other additions such as seeking to simplify the procedures for licensing financial services firms.
Having secured the EU legacy agreements, the UK now faces the opportunities and challenges of the post-Brexit environment. This seems to be a particular moment of flux, with long-term demographic and technological trends affecting the global economy starting to bite. Equally, the pandemic has introduced a short-term shock that has brought long-term geopolitical and structural questions about national resilience to the fore. This has primarily centred on China with regard to the supply of sensitive products, such as personal protective equipment, and technology with a security dimension.
Meanwhile, Brexit is altering the UK’s economic and political relationships in its immediate neighbourhood. The recent rows with Brussels over vaccine export bans, the Northern Ireland Protocol and UK exports of live shellfish demonstrate that the UK cannot necessarily expect many favours from the EU in the short- to medium-term.
Therefore, it is important to take both a strategic and long-term view of UK trade relationships. Europe will always remain important to the UK by virtue of geography and shared core values, but long-term trends (reinforced by Brexit) mean that the UK must accelerate efforts to diversify its trade to the rest of the world and limit its exposure to UK-EU pinch points, such as the Dover-Calais trade route.
There is some evidence that this is already happening. Liverpool, the UK’s fifth-biggest container port, is reportedly gaining traffic from southern ports as logistics companies try to avoid congestion at the busier roll-on, roll-off Channel crossings.
Future trade deals will be important but they should be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in of themselves. Trade agreements rarely result in overnight economic transformation. The UK has sensibly prioritised trade negotiations with like-minded countries: Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The recent development of the UK-India Enhanced Trade Partnership, illustrates the strategic priority the UK is placing on the Indo-Pacific region and in deepening ties to the world’s largest democracy.
The Australia and New Zealand negotiations are important stepping stones to the wider 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK has now formally requested to join. The CPTPP also includes Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
Sceptics say that the immediate economic benefits of CPTPP are likely to be marginal, since the UK expects to have individual bilateral trade agreements with all but Malaysia and Brunei by the time it accedes. There is some truth to this argument, but this overlooks the benefits to business from operating under one set of rules rather than various individual bilateral agreements.
Nevertheless, the primary benefit of CPTPP accession is likely to be strategic. As Policy Exchange’s Trading Tigers paper noted in 2018, it provides a platform and a coalition through which the UK can engage in an increasingly important region of the world, where the global rules on trade are being debated and shaped, particularly on digital trade and services. Japan, the biggest economy in the CPTPP, faces similar strategic challenges to the UK. It too is seeking to diversify and reduce dependence on its large neighbour, China.
We don’t yet know what approach Joe Biden will take to trade agreements, including with the UK, but there is a good chance that the US will re-engage with the CPTPP after stepping away from it in 2017 under Donald Trump. If the US were to re-join the CPTPP, it would be far better for the UK to be on the inside than in the queue to join.
It is worth noting that the impetus for the CPTPP, which came into force in December 2018, came from a 2005 trade agreement between a small group of countries comprising Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. It is a case-study in long-term strategic thinking by those countries.
The world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting decisively. McKinsey estimates that, by 2040, Asia is expected to account for 40 per cent of the world’s total consumption. Traditionally, the UK has struggled to gain market share in fast-growing emerging markets, relative to the likes of Germany and the United States. In large part, this is due to the UK’s specialism in services.
But, over the long-term, this is an opportunity for the UK to seize. The UK currently has the second largest share of total global services trade, after only the US. Services account for around 45 per cent of total UK exports, making it the most specialised exporter of services in the world – the corresponding EU average share, excluding the UK, is only 26 per cent (for the US it is 33 per cent). Though currently dwarfed by trade in goods, trade in services has grown more than 60 per cent faster than goods trade over the past decade – and Asia’s services trade is growing 1.7 times faster than in the rest of the world.
The UK was an EU member for nearly half a century. Truss recently noted that UK membership of the CPTPP is about putting in place strategies that would “deliver for Britain in 2030 and 2050”. This seems a sensible time horizon upon which to base, and ultimately judge, the UK’s new trade strategy.