Credit: Original article can be found here
The struggles to strike a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU dominate the headlines – understandably so, given the value of imports and exports for both sides. Negotiators shuttle back and forth, amid a dizzying crossfire of briefing and counter-briefing. Deadlines prove easier to move than red lines, and nobody quite knows where or how (still less when) it will end.
In the background of this frustratingly slow negotiation, however, there’s something else going on. Or, rather, there’s somebody else going on: a minister beavering away on a mass of trade negotiations with rather more joy than has yet been found in Brussels.
i’s opinion newsletter: talking points from today
Let’s hear it for Liz Truss, who as International Trade Secretary has become one of the Government’s undersung success stories. While the UK’s future relationship with the EU is Downing Street’s responsibility, the Trade Secretary has the not inconsiderable task of establishing this country’s trading relationship with, well, everybody else on the planet.
Doing so involves building up a British trade negotiating capacity that had completely withered away during the four decades in which trade was an EU responsibility. It means combining technical and legal expertise with effective consultation with business, even before you start conducting trade diplomacy with countries that never made the mistake of surrendering their in-house negotiating capacity.
Truss’s most pressing task was to focus on securing “roll-over” deals – agreements for the UK to replicate the trading relationships which had been negotiated on our behalf while we were in the EU.
Liz Truss singing a deal with Singapore covering £17.6bn of trade (Photo: Liz Truss/Twitter)
There was widespread scepticism in some circles that a supposedly introspective independent UK would be of interest to these markets, and an assumption that reopening agreements from a position of supposed weakness would see us forced to accept worse terms. People’s Vote, the rebranded Remain campaign, predicted last year that “the UK is years away from signing any trade deals with third-party countries… [and] we will be losing access to the EU’s trade deals”.
Big Bloc-ism – the idea that only by outsourcing trade policy to the EU can our small island nation get a hearing – contains an implicit expectation that anyone choosing to leave such a bloc will struggle afterwards.
A glance at Truss’s Twitter feed should shake the confidence of anyone still making that case. Week in, week out, there she is: putting pen to paper in front of the flags of yet another trade partner at the conclusion of successful talks. In the last week came agreements with Canada, Kenya, Singapore (described as “an outside chance” as recently as last month), Vietnam, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, to make a combined total of over 50 such deals.
This breakneck progress means that ahead of the end of the transition period – and regardless of what happens in the talks with Brussels – the UK has now signed rollover agreements covering over 93 per cent of the value of such trade with non-EU countries. There may yet be more to come, given that negotiations continue, and considering the Duracell Bunny energy that Truss and her department have brought to the job.
Liz Truss agreeing the UK-Switzerland Services Mobility Agreement (Photo: Liz Truss/Twitter)
Pah, you may think – trade with the EU is worth far more. Yes it is, hence the continued efforts by both London and Brussels to strike a deal. But that doesn’t make these agreements worthless; the EU itself obviously believes them to be valuable, given the effort it put into negotiating them for itself.
But we’re just replicating what we had in the EU, you might retort. That’s true of the rollover agreements, obviously – but don’t forget that they were wrongly portrayed as being impossible for an independent UK to secure.
More importantly, it is crucial to realise that these agreements represent the beginning, not the end, of our newly independent trade policy.
The rollover deals are valuable, but they are not just an end in themselves. The Department for International Trade has been hiring experts from the private sector and veteran negotiators from abroad. It has been planning, innovating, learning from experience and developing relationships with negotiators and politicians in valuable markets
The very sight of the UK conducting successful negotiations shows that our country is open for business.
Truss has already signed the first agreement that goes beyond that negotiated by the EU, with Japan – she signed on the dotted line in 19 October, months after such a concord was predicted to be “years away”.
Having rolled over existing agreements, the door is open to negotiate crucial reciprocal deals on areas that the EU’s own deals do not cover with these and other partners – particularly on the technologies that represent the big growth sectors of the future.
Wholly new agreements are in the pipeline. The latest round of talks with Australia finished just over a week ago, discussions with New Zealand are under way, relationships are being built with the new US administration-elect, and only yesterday the Trade Secretary was conspicuously co-hosting a forum with senior Indian business leaders.
There is a larger strategy at play, too. Individual deals have inherent value, a reputation for deal-making has knock-on benefits and multiple bilateral agreements with related countries then open the door to additional possibilities. As Truss told a City audience last month, “these agreements are important in themselves, for the economic benefit they bring, but they’re also important because they provide a bridge towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership”.
Expect to hear those words – or their tongue-twister abbreviation, the CPTPP – more in 2021. The Partnership is not just a large free-trade area, but one covering economies that are set to grow rapidly in the coming years, and the UK has already secured the backing of several key members for its forthcoming application to join.
In a government that sometimes struggles to find positive stories to boast of, the Trade Secretary is proving to be a standout exception.
Mark Wallace is executive editor of ‘ConservativeHome’, a political blog that is independent of the Conservative Party