The topic of International Trade was never too far from the surface throughout the last four plus years of Brexit debate. Most recently, we’ve had the high-wire act of a last-minute trade deal being struck with EU on Christmas Eve, and last week’s review of foreign policy indicated a shift in focus towards the Indo-Pacific nations, such as India and China.
Free Trade Agreements and Policy have been the ‘buzz’ words of late, and whilst of crucial importance, are unlikely to have stirred the emotions of the small and medium exporters across the UK planning for the post Brexit world. So last week’s news announcing the creation of 4 regional Trade & Investment hubs is welcome news, and hopefully an indicator of the practical steps that will now be taken to ensure that the Global Britain ideal becomes more of a reality.
The need to signpost opportunities and equip exporters, many of whom have been reeling, not only in dealing with the pandemic, but also coping with changes in process in exporting to their main market in the EU could not be clearer. Exports from UK to EU declined by 41% in January, and with EU-UK trading relations further clouded by the ongoing Astra Zeneca vaccine row, companies will be encouraged to develop opportunities elsewhere in the world. Of course, it all starts closer to home, and the regional export hubs provide an opportunity to engage with companies and provide practical support and advice to help them succeed. Some will argue that the move is politically motivated by the governments ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, but even the most hardened cynics would concede that the UK is too dependent on London and the South East for its export sales, and alongside other recent initiatives such as Freeports and the Towns Fund, there is a real opportunity to redress the balance.
A note of caution though, actions speak louder than words. The financial support and depth of services offered to UK exporters, is significantly lower than other countries such as Ireland and Canada whose export intensity exceeds the UK. Export opportunities exist across the world for UK companies, and there is no doubt that the UK has an enviable reputation for its good and services, especially in emerging markets. However, for the average UK SME, exporting is often a daunting task, and in parallel with the creation of these regional export hubs, it will be critical to ensure that they provide a range of practical services that give companies confidence to pursue an export agenda, as well as a level of financial supports to stimulate and de-risk the activity.
The initiative will also provide an acid test for how UK national government complements the already significant efforts on export support, provided by the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Duplicative, over-lapping and point scoring efforts will doubtless get short shift from a private sector weary after a year of lockdowns. Co-ordinated efforts that pave the way for export activity playing a major role in the post pandemic economic recovery will be what UK business will demand, and ultimately determine how solid the foundations of the aforementioned ‘hubs’ will be long-term.