No one can accuse Liz Truss, our International Trade Secretary, of dragging her feet since we voted five years ago (June 23, 2016) to leave the EU. Just as well because not only have we had to stabilise our post-Brexit relationship with Europe, our largest and closest export market, but also use our new-found freedom to find new customers in other regions – a huge task that has not been helped by the pandemic.
By way of perspective, it is estimated that 6.5m jobs in the UK rely on exports, with 3.7m supported by goods and services sent to countries outside the EU.
On top of the 14 trade deals we signed last year, the UK is currently in advanced negotiations to increase trade with various independent states. Most recently, we learnt that we are in sight of signing a ‘gold standard’ agreement with Australia. We have also started talks with India – the world’s largest democratic nation – with the hope of at least doubling the value of our trading relationship (worth £29bn in 2019) by the end of the decade.
Elsewhere, Britain is negotiating a trade agreement with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP); members include Japan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. And arguably the biggest prize of all, we have high hopes of signing a lucrative new trade agreement with the US.
So, it is all to play for, particularly for manufacturers who, with overseas sales totaling £687bn, accounted for over half of the UK’s total exports at the end of 2019. However, the fear is that smaller companies are missing out on export opportunities because they lack the confidence to enter new markets with unfamiliar laws and cultures. The proportion of UK SMEs exporting dropped from 50% in 2008 to only 32% in 2018.
A ten-point action plan which includes the creation of a new UK Trade Committee, headed up by Boris Johnson himself, has been launched to reverse that trend and make sure that valuable export opportunities are not being lost. The provision of integrated support tools – linked to wider industrial and regional levelling-up strategies – will prove invaluable in a marketplace radically changed by new technology.
Experts talk of “unimagined opportunities” for British firms in 2021 – a year which sees us with independent membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as holding the presidency of the G7 and hosting the COP26 in Glasgow in November. This year offers us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase what is best about the country we’re proud to call home. We cannot afford to waste it.