The implications of Brexit for the UK’s trade arrangements, a subject on which Leave and Remain campaigners have sharply disagreed, were addressed in the first two seminars of a series on Brexit hosted by the Constitution Unit and the UCL European Institute. Drawing on the comments of the seminar speakers, Oliver Patel discusses the impact that post-Brexit trade negotiations would have on Whitehall and the EU. Whitehall, in particular, would face a number of practical difficulties. Though not insurmountable, these mean that the process of negotiating new trade deals would be far from straightforward.
All of a sudden, everyone is talking about trade deals. The EU referendum Leave campaign argue that outside the EU the UK will prosper as it will be able to negotiate favourable trade deals with growing economies like India and Australia. Remain campaigners argue that this will not be easy and that being in the EU gives us more clout. Their cause was boosted by Barack Obama’s claim that the UK would have to join the back of queue if it wanted its own trade deal with the US.
Our first Brexit seminar and associated briefing paper assessed the impact of Brexit on Whitehall and Westminster. The panel agreed that the process of withdrawing from the EU would cause major headaches for Whitehall. This is primarily because of the various international negotiations which the UK would subsequently have to engage in, such as a withdrawal agreement with the EU and new free trade agreements with non-EU countries.
Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), noted that the UK government currently employs very few (if any) trade negotiators, as the function has long been outsourced to Brussels. He concluded that the practical challenge of negotiating multiple international agreements in the event of Brexit – whilst also managing the ongoing business of government – would be huge. However, he does not view the challenge as insurmountable, so long as Whitehall increases capacity and expertise in key areas and co-ordinates the process effectively.