The harsh reality of negotiations is fast catching up with the International Trade Secretaryby David Henig / February 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
When the histories of Brexit are written, Liam Fox will surely be remembered for saying that the post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU should be the “easiest in human history.” To be fair he did follow up this remark in July 2017 by saying that if it didn’t happen it would be because “politics gets in the way of economics.” But then since politics typically gets in the way of economics, to assume otherwise is somewhat on the naïve side.
Sadly this is hardly an isolated case of naïve optimism in Fox’s time as International Trade Secretary. Indeed his time in office has been marked by repeated signs of worrying complacency. My experience in trade policy, including at the Department for International Trade until last year, is that it is a complex interaction of politics, economics and diplomacy, taking time to deliver results.
Instead Fox has shown a tendency to promise the highly unlikely, with serious implications for the UK’s businesses and international standing.
A few examples make the point. In October 2017 he told a Conservative Party conference event that “we’re going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the European Union so we’ve got no disruption of trade.” In the last few days it has been revealed that in fact few of these agreements will be ready if the UK leaves the EU with no deal, and some may not be in place even if there is a deal.
According to Fox, part of the reason is that “a number of countries… are unwilling to put the preparations in for no-deal.” Heroic blame-shifting for something he should perhaps have foreseen.
In July 2018 appearing before the Commons Trade Select Committee, Fox said that negotiations on agricultural quotas required to establish the basis for trade at the WTO were “going quite well” and that any problems were “not with the United Kingdom.” Sadly WTO members disagreed with this analysis and a number raised formal objections to the UK’s proposals in November 2018.
The problems aren’t just with other countries, but even with Fox’s flagship in parliament, the Trade Bill. Also in July 2018 Fox set out his proposals for parliamentary scrutiny and public involvement in trade policy, saying “I am confident that our proposals will deliver the scrutiny…