Brexit comment, Perspectives

Perspectives: UK government secrecy hasn’t delivered good trade deals

The negative impact of the United Kingdom government’s consistently secretive approach to trade policy since 2016 is becoming clearer.

When trade policy was referenced in the Brexit referendum of 2016, it wasn’t just about the prospect of UK trade deals.

One of the other issues most frequently mentioned was the secrecy around negotiations for the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. For example writing to a health campaign group future Brexit Secretary of State David Davis said: “If the campaign succeeds, TTIP in the UK will be dead in the water.”

One might have expected the United Kingdom government to learn from the experience it gained as EU member confronted with how lack of transparency negatively affected the TTIP project and adopt a relatively open approach to trade policy consultation.  That was, after all, the response of the EU, who realised TTIP secrecy threatened the whole trade policy agenda, and adjusted accordingly.

Adopting greater openness was also in line with the pre-referendum government actively encouraging it from officials.

But greater openness didn’t happen.

There are a number of reasons for this. There was the – outdated – general belief that absolute secrecy was essential to negotiation success. There were concerns among the strongest Brexit supporters of a ‘Remain establishment’ sabotaging talks with the EU. This justified a need for a small closed team. Then Prime Minister Theresa May and the UK civil service both seem to have inclined naturally in this direction.

What was practiced in EU talks was also applied to trade negotiations with other trading partners and this is an approach that has largely continued since.

The effects are only just becoming evident. For example the weak provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU in areas such as mobility and equivalence can be ascribed to inadequate consultation with the relevant stakeholders.

While the EU trade relationship remains divisive, the growing backlash over the recently concluded UK-Australia FTA is of greater concern, given the precedent this agreement sets for future UK trade policy.

This comes alongside a recent change of course on trade remedies for steel and suggests the government hadn’t got consultation right. Or, as business and many others allege, the government goes through the motions of consultations – but doesn’t deliver.

Formal structures with limited impact

There is no shortage of committees that have been set up in the UK to talk about trade policy.

At the top of the hierarchy, with their mixes of business, civil society and academic stakeholders and political appointees, are the Board of Trade, which last week issued a report on green trade, and the Strategic Trade Advisory Group.

Below the latter are a series of individual Trade Advisory Groups. These cover different subjects with business representatives. Then there is the Trade and Agriculture Commission, to be established on a statutory basis after a report from an ad-hoc body of the same name.

These bodies come on top of the usual informal consultations across government. In particular, there are regular meetings between officials and their counterparts from the UK’s devolved governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Such structures seem in line with what is practiced in other countries.

Yet stakeholders including those sitting on these bodies seem unhappy. They haven’t been able to say much – owing to rigorous non-disclosure agreements they were compelled to sign to be admitted to the groups. This, perhaps, gives us a clue as to their reasons.

The problem seems to be that the government does not want to share much information with stakeholders, believing they cannot be trusted. During EU-UK negotiations there were shouts of betrayal if UK groups met EU negotiators, even though this is perfectly normal practice in international negotiations. Such an attitude seems to have carried on into wider trade negotiations. These meetings don’t appear to discuss much of real substance.

Meanwhile, membership of such bodies is being heavily controlled. Factors such as previous social media posts critical of the government are a reason for non-inclusion. This suggests that as well as not imparting information the government doesn’t want to hear difficult comments, and it won’t hear those if participants feel that saying them could end their access.

Ministers say little in informal meetings

Formal committees are of course only one part of the consultation conducted by a modern trade department. Every day officials and ministers are engaged in meetings with different groups, discussing anything from specific trade barriers to overall policy direction.

Again, there is no suggestion that ministers or officials are doing less of this than counterparts elsewhere. However the experience is that they stick to very cautious scripts and refuse to deviate from these even when asked for comments off the record. As a result business representatives joining calls on, for example, accession to the Asia-Pacific trade pact CPTPP are coming away having learnt little they couldn’t have read.

It is perhaps this experience, more than the formal structures, which cause the frustrations. Those seeking any insight into how the UK government is approaching an issue, which may be of great value to them, are not hearing it. Whether ministers are not confident or not allowed to talk, they are generally seen as largely not engaging.

Pressure for change grows in Parliament

The UK Parliament in modern times is typically under government control. It was little surprise when it voted not to give itself powers to sign off negotiating mandates or final trade deals. Some scrutiny is however provided by select committees, notably for International Trade in the House of Commons, and for International Agreements in the Lords.

When government ministers appear before these committees in public session they similarly reveal little by way of new information. That has become almost expected across policy areas. But questions have been growing particularly about the Australia deal, its likely negative impact on UK farmers, its lack of obvious UK wins, and the absence of meaningful commitments on vital topics such as climate change. These outcomes can easily be linked to a government that isn’t taking consultation seriously.

In the last year political pressure from both Houses has resulted in government committing time to debates with them.

Now there are many MPs seeking to take matters further, quite possibly after hearing from unhappy businesses and other stakeholder groups.

Starting from a blank page, the UK could have implemented a good system of trade policy consultation. That didn’t happen. By now bad habits have become ingrained.

Concerns over the UK Australia deal will probably help push government in the right direction. Ultimately, though, the government has to reach the conclusion that genuine trade policy openness is the route to better outcomes. That recognition still seems some way off.


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David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.

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