By Alex Davies - Research Analyst
One consequence of Brexit is that people have started talking seriously about trade again, something this country has arguably not done for 40 years. “Global Britain” is a term that has started cropping up everywhere since the Brexit vote, and now forms major sections of both the Labour and Conservative manifestos. Unfortunately, both are woolly on the issue, basically stating over and over again that we should do more trade with everyone and encourage them to do more with us. We also heard vagaries about the benefits of free trade and reminisces about the corn laws from Liam Fox before he disappeared from existence a few months back (seriously, where is that guy and what is he doing?). There is a lack of detail across the board, and as we can extract from the CETA agreement taking more than seven years, matters of international trade are all about the details. So we might be talking about trade again, but largely it feels like we are missing the point.
Some progress has been made, with the conversation slowly picking up on the fact that what really makes trade happen isn’t reducing or removing tariffs, it’s removing all of the other stuff that gets in the way – the non-tariff barriers (NTBs). It is these barriers that drag trade to a crawl, with companies having to provide all sorts of documentation with their goods, those goods getting stopped and checked at borders, complex compliance requirements and a whole host of other things. Businesses can deal with tariffs, which manifest as an extra line on a bill, but the other hoops they have to jump through are what really discourages international trade, and slows it down when companies are bold and take the plunge. If you’re just talking about tariffs, you’re not talking about trade.
Another issue is communication. “Bonfire of regulations” is a popular term, but when regulations are stripped away the businesses that wrestle with said regulation can only adapt to the changes if they know about them. We’ve heard anecdotes of companies continuing to adhere to paperwork or compliance obligations unnecessarily simply because nobody had told them that they don’t need to do it anymore.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were loads of people who deal with this stuff every day? Who could perhaps help our government figure out how we make “global Britain” a reality? There is – businesses. Obviously, the macroeconomics and minutia of international trade deals will be juggled by people are experts in legislation, but businesses deal with NTBs every day, and are put off exporting to that new market for some reason or another, every day. There is so much knowledge out there in the minds of everyday workers who deal with international legislation, even if they don’t know it themselves. The Chamber network across the UK will attest to this.
This is why in the context of Brexit and potentially a re-imagining of our trade policy, it is vital that the communication between those drawing up new trade legislation and the businesses that will use it is strong. This means ongoing business-led trade support and a recognition of the vast expertise that exists in Britain’s businesses. This means face-to-face time with people who deal with export documentation. It means allowing the Chamber network and other similar organisations to act as a conduit for these types of engagement. Instead of reminiscing about Britain’s maritime past, go and talk to an exporter of widgets from Oldham about their issues, or go talk to a manufacturer who wants to export but doesn’t know how in Tameside. Global Britain starts at home.
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