If Britain does ever leave the European Union with no deal, by accident or by design, then it will have at least some countries it can do business with. With only a few weeks to the putative Brexit day of 29 March, and with well over two years of preparatory work behind it, the Department for International Trade has managed to secure a mere three out of the 40 agreements the UK enjoys through EU membership, which cover 71 countries.
Where once there was brave, proud talk of trade deals being “signature ready” on 29 March with the likes of the United States, Japan, Australia and South Korea, no major economies are yet ready to trade with the UK on anything like the mutually advantageous terms that are now in existence via the EU’s efforts. Apparently the Faroe Islands have been sorted out, but there are disturbing allegations that some world “powers” that are still smaller than Britain are being bullied into agreeing trade deals that may be anything but free and fair.
The Department for International Trade is rightly being criticised for attempting to push Ghana, Mauritius, Kenya, Namibia and Swaziland into offering the UK advantageous arrangements – advantageous, that is, for the British. It is ironic that when so many in Britain rail against the EU, itself 10 times larger than Britain economically, for using its size to extract a hard bargain, the UK should be doing precisely the same thing to some of the world’s poorer nations. It has an almost imperialist feel to it, colouring the map of the world pink with the territories that Liam Fox has managed to “conquer” for their supplies of bananas, sugar and cut flowers.
Just as the British are being driven into a “blind Brexit” through their own incompetence in talks and the determination of the EU to drive a hard bargain, so the British are now doing the same to these smaller territories.
It is a reminder, were one needed, and another reason why a no-deal Brexit on 29 March would be a catastrophe not only for the UK but for those states that do rely on Britain as an old and reliable market, back from the days when they were colonies and their economies sometimes distorted to fit with British imperial needs.
Some, though, are too big to bully. Richer countries, including Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Japan and South Korea, have the power to withstand what passes for British pressure. There has been an assumption, far too lazy, that the existing trade agreements via the EU will be simply copied and pasted into a fresh treaty with the UK. These counties are wise to this, and can spot the opportunity to push the UK into deals that are more advantageous than the ones they enjoy with the EU. No ties of history or sentiment, and not even Commonwealth loyalties, will make much difference to the hard commercial imperative of getting the best for their respective economies.
In all of this there is also the fact that Mr Fox’s department is still woefully short of expertise. Partly this is because Britain has had no need of its own trade officials for almost half a century. It is also, though, because the department has proved so successful at recruiting the brightest and the best negotiators from overseas – importing them, in fact. This might also have something to do with the caps on public sector salaries, but it leaves Britain at a further severe disadvantage.
The facts of international trading life are clear: a no-deal Brexit on 29 March would leave Britain struggling to import what it needs to survive, and to export what it needs to earn a living in the world. Goods and services are equally affected. It is why Brexit has to be paused, at the least, and subjected to a proper audit. The UK-EU trade and security treaty exists as no more than a vague political declaration; there are few replacement trade treaties with other partners; and even the UK-EU withdrawal agreement cannot be ratified. It has gone too far. There needs to be some pause for reflection, and reconsideration.
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