For far too long, UK trade associations — those industry clubs that supposedly attend to the interests of their members — have been unambitious. They have been lax in advising members as to where to trade, persistently talking up the advantages of importing from or exporting to regional players in nearby EU states.
The UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January this year has pressurised these industry clubs into looking further afield for trade access as the distinct possibility of tariff barriers with EU countries looms in the case of a WTO exit from Transition at the end of this year.
Suddenly, lucrative markets such as Taiwan, Kuwait, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Uruguay — all of which have high spending consumers, but none ratified comprehensive free trade agreements with the EU — have come into view.
While Brussels has been responsible for trade competence overall, individual member states have struck sector-specific trade deals, on lamb, beef or pork for example. And recently our own Government agency AHDB has worked with the Department for International Trade to see such mini-deals sealed. The pro-EU NFU has been not so strident in calling for non-EU deals, but these deals have been sealed despite NFU reticence.
But non-food trade associations like the vehicle industry club SMMT stick their heads in the sand and focus on the EU instead of eyeing product-hungry markets such as India, the UAE, Russia or Australia. The clubs do raise their heads above the parapet when FTA talks are launched (note the post-Japan talks announcement) but until then keep noticeably and shamefully schtum.
Many of these clubs were pro-Remain despite many of their members backing Brexit. But we’re out now, and they need to ensure that their members take full and profitable advantage of the amazing opportunities that exist all around our challenging globe.