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Emily Jones discusses key issues around Brexit trade negotiations

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Last week, GEG Director Emily Jones spoke at a seminar on the issues the UK must address as it takes part in trade negotiations with the EU, the US and other major trading partners. The event was organised by Frontier Economics as part of the Trade Knowledge Exchange, which seeks to provide expert analysis around the post-Brexit trade environment. The seminar was chaired by Frontier Economics chairman Gus O’Donnell, and Emily spoke alongside Professor Alan Winters (UK Trade Policy Observatory at Sussex University) and Amar Breckenridge (Frontier Economics).

Trade negotiations are a complex process, with multiple intersections with regulation and public policy. As the UK untangles itself from existing EU agreements and attempts to forge a new path, it will face experienced negotiating teams and immense political and public pressure. Any trade-offs need to be carefully considered, unequal distribution of the benefits of trade must be minimised, and arrangements should be put in place to allow for proper oversight of the negotiating processes and outcomes.

The seminar speakers highlighted two key trends in the UK’s trade negotiating strategy that may be working against its interests. Firstly, the government has sought to reduce the role of parliamentary involvement in trade matters, in the hope that this will ensure a deal can be quickly concluded. This desire to conclude negotiations quickly, particularly with the EU, is the second potentially counter-productive trend.

Reducing parliamentary involvement in trade negotiations removes a key strategic option: negotiating teams will often defer to constraints imposed by domestic law to indicate the limits of the concessions they are willing to grant their counterparts. For example, US negotiators regularly point to limits on labour and environmental standards enshrined in US legislation; EU law insists on implementing sustainable development commitments in its trade agreements; and the New Zealand government requires all trade deals to recognise its obligations to Māori. With this in mind, Emily Jones has written recently on how the UK should pass laws to keep the NHS off the table in UK-US trade negotiations.

Furthermore, insisting that negotiations should be concluded quickly risks overlooking important considerations at a time when the UK faces significant decisions on how to configure its geopolitical positioning. Allowing more time to form an international trade strategy that is sufficiently developed and evidence-based is paramount to establishing clear priorities and an understanding of those who may lose out as a result of certain trade reforms, as well as allowing for alignment on other important strategic areas, such as industrial strategy and green growth.

The speakers also highlighted that trade policy formulation needed broader societal involvement, reaching beyond parliament and government departments to include civil society, expert groups and industry.

As the UK exits the EU, it must be prepared for the significant challenges and opportunities that this will create. Stepping down on unnecessarily inhibitive time constraints and allowing for all relevant parties to be involved in the process will leave the UK better placed to ensure a positive outcome in the negotiations.