UK should ditch the rhetoric and focus on the feasible, say trade experts

A hundred days after the UK voted to leave the EU, now is the time to ditch the rhetoric and start focusing on what is feasible, trade experts have said.

The scale of the task facing the UK after Brexit is so vast that trade negotiators will need to be pragmatic and practical, relying on handshakes and temporary ‘peace clauses’ to maintain the status quo during negotiations.

That’s the view of experts at the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) at the University of Sussex in a new briefing paper on the UK trade landscape after Brexit.

Professor Jim Rollo, who co-authored the new briefing, said: “We’ve heard a lot of grand announcements this summer about Britain forging a new role for itself in the world.

“It’s plain to see that that will have to wait – the UK’s trade negotiators face far more pressing concerns.

“The workload and time pressure that Brexit commands suggest that deciding, let alone negotiating, a completely new regime is unrealistic.

“Our paper focuses on the more mundane question of what may be feasible.”

The briefing paper is the first detailed attempt to scope out the landscape facing trade negotiators following the Brexit vote.

In it, authors Emily Lydgate, a law academic, economist Jim Rollo and international relations expert Rorden Wilkinson provide the most detailed portrayal yet of the months and years ahead. They warn that the most immediate challenges the UK faces arise from its reduced negotiating power as a sole actor, the initial lack of personnel and training in trade negotiation, time pressure, and concerns that the EU will seek to play hardball in order to discourage other member states from leaving the union.

They also say that:

  • The UK is faced with the task of negotiating more than 100 new trade agreements if it leaves the EU customs union
  • Negotiations with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the EU are the most pressing
  • Trade partners in regional and bilateral agreements may want to change the terms of their existing agreements
  • The UK will need to recruit and train a large body of new specialist staff
  • If the UK is to expose its markets to greater competition, it also needs to be ready to help potentially disadvantaged groups at home to adjust

They also propose measures to reduce the negotiation load, including:

  • Seeking temporary ‘peace clauses’ to maintain existing terms of trade during negotiations
  • Joining existing (or intended) mega-regional agreements, to ease negotiations with third countries; however, doing so may also result in loss of sovereignty

The UKTPO was set up days after the 23 June vote to provide expert commentary and analysis of trade policy as the UK prepares to strike out on its own. It is run in partnership with Chatham House.

By: James Hakner
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Last updated: Friday, 30 September 2016