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Britain should be on 'war-footing' for trade deals

Published 07/07/2016

Lord Green issued the warning about trade negotiations
Lord Green issued the warning about trade negotiations

Britain should put itself on a "war-footing" to meet the challenge of negotiating trade deals in the wake of the Brexit vote, a former HSBC boss has said.

Tory former trade minister Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint warned "life is not going to be easy or straightforward" in reaching agreements with other countries.

Lord Green said even before the EU referendum global trade had been the "clear Achilles heel of the British economy" for several decades.

Describing the UK trade deficit as "serious and chronic", he added: "No other country is in this position."

Following the EU vote, Lord Green said the UK had "dramatically increased the scale of the challenge, the scale of the complexity and the risk".

He said: "We have put into question our ready access the market which takes over 40% of our exports."

"We are now on our own, we have taken the challenge, we have made the decision, we now need to deliver on the promises.

"We have given ourselves some extra degrees of freedom, but we have undertaken grave risks."

Highlighting the complexity of discussions on future trade deals, Lord Green said: "Life is not going to be easy or straightforward in these negotiations."

He added: "We need a huge increase in official resources devoted to this challenge.

"We should see this almost as putting the country on a war footing."

He suggested the current 20-strong team in the trade policy division of the Department for Business should rapidly be increased as much as tenfold and "trained in the minutiae of trade negotiations".

Lord Green also said the budget cut to UK Trade & Investment should be reversed.

The peer made his call during a debate on opportunities for global trade in the House of Lords, which had been tabled by Conservative peer Baroness Mobarik.

Opening the debate, Lady Mobarik warned against "paralysis" during Britain's exit from the EU and called for the UK to actively engage with the rest of the world.

She called for a task force to be set up to strengthen commercial trade and business links outside the EU.

She said the body should be "results driven" and operated like a business.

Lady Mobarik also said the UK needed to invest in infrastructure.

She said: "We are hesitating once again in our commitment to airport expansion. This cannot be right at such a crucial time for our country and our economy."

Conservative former cabinet minister Lord Patten warned against drawn out talks with the EU and argued if no agreement could be reached then World Trade Organisation rules could be applied.

Pointing out the UK was the bloc's largest single export market, he said: "The EU needs the UK market very badly indeed in any future trade negotiations."

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Stoneham of Droxford said: "Uncertainty is one thing that is going to kill business confidence and investment."

He argued the country was "woefully unprepared" for the Brexit vote and questioned the "sheer incompetence" of the Government holding a referendum and having no alternative plan.

For Labour, Lord Mendelsohn warned that the Government needed to be woken from "suspended animation" and be "bold and expansive".

He said the fall in sterling was no solution to the UK's trade problems. Ministers had been "far too relaxed" about the decline in manufacturing and now needed an industrial strategy.

Business Minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said the overwhelming need now was to "rise to the occasion and make the most of new opportunities".

Lady Neville-Rolfe said she had wanted to remain in the EU but the Government now had to implement the referendum decision to leave and must put forward a positive vision.

"We must build on UK dynamism and make the UK the best place in the world to do business."

The UK would continue to participate in EU decision-making on trade issues during the negotiations to leave,

These were challenging times but rich in opportunity.

"The priority is to limit uncertainty during the transition and keep Britain open to international trade," she said.

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