The time is ripe to embrace trade with the Commonwealth

The time is ripe to embrace trade with the Commonwealth

James Cleverly is co-author, with Tim Hewish, of Reconnecting with the Commonwealth: the UK’s free trade opportunities, published today by the Free Enterprise Group.

Each voter in the EU referendum would have had their own blend of motives for their vote, whether it was a Remain vote or a Brexit vote. I voted to leave the EU in large part because of my belief that there were global trading opportunities that we were missing out on because of our membership of the EU.

In the last line of my maiden speech to Parliament, I said:

“I will fight for infrastructure investment in my constituency and for a good deal for my constituents, but I will also fight to keep this nation an internationally focused competitive trading nation.”

I stand by that desire.

Now that the UK has voted to leave the EU we have the chance to make that desire a reality and starting with the Commonwealth is as good a place as any. In the pamphlet that I have co-written with Tim Hewish of the Royal Commonwealth Society, published today by the Free Enterprise Group, we outline the importance of reconnecting with our long-standing international partners.

Back when the Empire was changing into the Commonwealth of Nations, Britain was the dominant economic force and the other Commonwealth countries were relatively minor. During the intervening decades they have grown fantastically and represent some of the most exciting and significant economies on the globe. The Commonwealth’s share of global GDP overtook that of the EU back in 2004 and the gap between those figures will grow larger when the UK leaves the EU in 2019.

A shared language, common law tradition, diaspora networks, and historic cultural links make growing our trade relationships easier than other potential trade partners. This “Commonwealth Advantage” has been estimated to provide a 19% uplift in trade compared to that with non-Commonwealth nations of similar economic circumstances.

There has been talk of a Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement (FTA), and while this is a beautiful aspiration, it remains unachievable for the foreseeable future. Within the Commonwealth are some of the most and least economically developed countries in the world –trying to negotiate a single agreement covering all 52 members is currently impossible.

A series of bilateral and multilateral agreements would be quicker and easier to deliver. It also recognises that other members have regional trade relationships that they will want to maintain and develop that would be hampered by a single FTA.

In our pamphlet, Tim and I put forward a roadmap to ensure we prioritise agreements with the economies most ready do so, such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore. It also highlights that a trade deal with traditionally more protectionist India could increase two-way trade by 26%. An important part of our plan is an explicit commitment not to ignore the smaller and less developed economies of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Commonwealth countries.

I hope that Liam Fox and his team at the Department for International Trade look favourably on the ideas that Tim and I have put forward, but we recognise that there is a wealth of ideas that the Government could and should draw from, so we call upon the Government to produce a white paper on international trade. The last one was in 2011 and so much in the world has changed since then.

Now is the time to embrace the opportunities of a market of 2.3 billion people from every continent with ties of language, law, and family. It is a time to reconnect.