The UK’s exit from the EU saw an end to its participation in the Single Market and the Customs Union and its inclusion in EU trade deals with third countries, causing a reset in the UK’s international trade policy. The government’s ambition is to have 80% of UK trade covered by Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) within the next three years and has already secured FTAs with Japan and Australia. This reset in policy has resulted in substantial change for UK businesses across all sectors in terms of how they trade. Part of the Department for International Trade’s remit (DIT) is to support UK business “to take full advantage of trade opportunities, including those arising from delivering FTAs” and facilitating exports, but what do those working in these sectors want to see in these agreements?
Trade unions have been active and unequivocal in what it wants from FTAs. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has raised a variety of issues in regard to FTAs and has submitted evidence to DIT’s consultations on its negotiations with Mexico, Canada and India on behalf of their 5.5 million members. Until recently, trade unions have been left frustrated after they were reportedly excluded from access to trade talks, preventing them from raising concerns on employment law and workers’ rights however the decision not to include them was reversed by DIT earlier this month. The TUC’s main priorities with all future UK trade deals include protecting public services by ensuring their exclusion from any trade deals, ensuring government commitments to supporting environmental protection and adherence to the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as securing the legislative authority for the UK government to impose sanctions against companies abusing labour standards.
Professional services representatives have called on the government to ensure that sectors can continue to operate in a global manner. The Law Society, for instance, has welcomed the UK-Australia FTA as it paves the way for greater movement of lawyers across the two jurisdictions and seeks to ensure stronger collaboration between regulators in the two countries. A prominent ask set out by the Society, however, is for the Government to agree provisions in trade agreements which protect the data processed by law firms, much of which relates to confidential client matters.
Another ask set out by the Law Society in relation to the UK-Australia FTA is for both countries to develop the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. This ask, which reflects the global nature of many UK service industries, has also been outlined by groups such as the Royal Institute of British Architects (as expressed within its views on the UK’s international trade strategy as a whole).
One sector that has been prominent in the news throughout FTA negotiations has been agriculture, particularly around market access and standards. In 2019, the UK exported £344m worth of agri-food goods to Canada. From 2017 to 2020, the UK exported an average of £350m of agri-food goods per year to Mexico.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) believes there is still significant room for further agricultural growth, particularly for UK dairy products. However, it has stressed that negotiators must ensure the UK’s high domestic production standards are protected in any future FTAs. Specifically, such deals should not allow the import of goods produced to standards that are not legal here – including maintaining the ban on beef produced using hormone growth promotants.
The NFU has also stated that negotiations must be conscious of the cumulative impacts of trade deals on British agriculture, particularly in relation to the UK-Australia FTA and the anticipated deal with New Zealand. Its primary concern around the UK’s ambition to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is the possibility that these separate negotiations could duplicate access for Canada and Mexico or provide back door access for countries with which the UK has not secured an FTA.
The UK’s education sector has called on the government to ensure that future trade deals don’t harm universities’ ability to attract international students. Universities UK, for example, has urged the government to ensure that trade negotiations don’t lead to situations whereby the quality associated with the UK’s higher education sector is compromised as a result of increased external investment into the sector.
On a more general point, the association has called on the government to consult more with the sector during trade negotiations with other countries, given the large positive impact the sector has upon the UK economy.
The Russell Group of universities has echoed Universities UK’s point on the need for trade deals to maintain high standards within the UK higher education sector. Moreover, it has called on the government to enter into FTAs which support both the mobility of students and professionals across countries and the ability for research to be conducted on a multi-jurisdictional basis.
Consulting with industry is an essential part of achieving the goals set out in the UK’s trade strategy. As the advocate for British business abroad, considering and balancing the views of many sectors at the outset throughout FTA negotiations is no easy task for the government, but it is a task that it cannot afford to avoid. It is not just industry that will have their say on trade negotiations, but Parliament, particularly the International Trade Committee, that will scrutinise the negotiations, and the agreed deals, but that’s a blog for another day…