Brexit and International trade: five steps for Britain to lead the way

By Atam Sandhu

 “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin

A hundred years on and not as seismic or as revolutionary, as the Bolshevik revolution, these past weeks have seen shift changes in Britain that most political pundits have observed as being some of the wildest in memory.

At first, this article was to focus entirely on Brexit: what it meant, how it would it play out, what were the expected time-frames around it, what opportunities existed for countries and what were the pitfalls to watch out for. However, these past two weeks (today, to put this in a time context, is July 14th and Theresa May appoints her new Cabinet) make the attempt of crystal ball gazing impossible. 

Instead, this article will lay out how, in my view, Britain ought to react and how the world’s fifth largest economy can, through its reputation, history and future, remain relevant.

Before sharing my views, here’s a recap of what these 14 days have seen:

  • The UK's decision to exit from the most powerful trading bloc in history;
  • an unprecedented revolt by the Labour Party with almost 90% of its sitting MPs refusing to back their leader, a leader who in turn refuses to resign;
  • an erratic trajectory that saw Boris Johnson as Brexit victor, as Britain’s sure-fire next Prime Minister, to then defeated and beyond salvation, to today holding one of the four Great Offices of State as he walks into the FCO;
  • the appointment of our second female Prime Minister - pretty much, without contest.
  • England, defeated at football by Iceland - a nation, as Gary Lineker put it, with more active volcanoes than professional footballers;
  • a harrowing increase in abuse and violence against foreign communities settled in Britain;
  • David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove viewing parliament from the back benches while David Davis and Liam Fox sit at the front;
  • Tony Blair being damned and condemned by the long awaited Chilcot report;
  • Serena Williams becoming the most successful tennis player of all time;
  • Andy Murray lifting another Wimbledon crown;
  • the words and phrases 'trigger article 50’, ‘Regrexit, ‘second referendum’ and ‘dissolution of the Union' entering our daily vocabulary
  • and Britain facing yet again, a summer that never was

As the FT put it, ‘It's a rather strange day. The Prime Minister resigning is only our third most important story’.

As the first signs of summer reach us and Parliament prepares for recess, everyone is wondering what Brexit is going to look like. Whether Brexit is fast as some European leaders demand, or slow as a country which has not signed a trade deal since 1971 would prefer, or decisive and clean as Nigel Farage - one of many who resigned on 4th July 2016 - would have it, it's anyone’s guess how Britain negotiates this divorce without losing the house, the car and, most importantly, the kids.

There are rumours that a detailed plan exists within the Parliamentary Party, that the contingency plan for leaving the EU is afoot; a plan, which to date has been only evident in the Bank of England's measured management in calming the financial markets ever since the historic result: a devolution max; a new deal for the City; a border deal in Ireland. Whatever the outcome, what will be key to exiting the EU is, how Britain handles leaving this forty-five year marriage and decides that it's ready to form new relationships. How will Brexit define Britain’s international trade and investment relationships worldwide?

For long, Britain has had the pull factor – the preferred destination for numerous investors, businesses and the world’s brightest talent. But, the game's changing - fast. Whereas it's true that countries will want to initiate negotiations around trade with Britain, it's essential for Britain to adopt a step-change in how it engages governments and how it courts its old and new friends alike. None of this is rocket science. But it's something that Britain has been famously inept at doing. Other than a few key partners, then the BRICS, then the MINTS, then the next acronym, many countries wanting to engage with Britain have always felt they got a rum deal. In contrast to the reception encountered in the US, France, China or Germany, in the UK, visitors always feel slightly snubbed.

This, in my view, is how changes to high-level diplomacy can make a material difference in this new space in which we find ourselves:

1. Our new Prime Minister should meet with visiting Heads of Government or Heads of State. This is something that has repeatedly failed to materialise for many visiting delegations in the past – photo opps missed in Downing Street, perceptions back home of being unwelcomed and uncomfortable first visits to Britain – and yet is easily remedied. A head of state from the smallest nation would meet the President, Vice-President or Secretary of State in DC, or the President or Prime Minister in Paris, whereas Britain repeatedly fails to wheel out its big guard when it has the ability to draw on a monarchy as well as its government - an elementary fix;

2. Britain has some of the most eminent, thought-leading and forward-thinking organisations worldwide and should increase their visibility internationally but especially amongst the diplomatic corps. Currently the DfIDs, Britain Export Finances the UKTIs remain invisible to the ambassadors and high commissioners in London who in turn cable their governments with no news of them – a straightforward and cyclical intelligence sharing exercise;

3. A massive ramping up of Prime Minister's Trade Envoys and an urgent, senior and powerful investment into sending impact trade missions to all corners of the world; again as a way to show the UK's commitment to improve trade relations and a visible willingness to negotiate and increase the country’s visibility abroad;

4. The Foreign Office should convene the pan-African, the ASEAN, the Caribbean, the Latin Heads of State summits for trade and investment  - every year the US, the Germans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the French claim these events. Now, post-Brexit Britain can take the lead;

5. Britain has a chance to show we welcome other governments as much of the world does, by waiving visas for ministers and diplomats, welcoming them through diplomatic channels on arrival and slashing the most expensive reception process on the planet at airports that even the wealthiest of nations balk at.

After I finished university, I went overseas with a group of friends to a country, and a city, that was notorious for its muggings and petty theft but nonetheless a must-see city for us. Tom, in our group, had the solution: the way to avoid being mugged and becoming a target was to walk with an air of defiance and confidence, chest puffed out, a strong march and never breaking your stride even if you bumped into people. As we consoled him in his hotel room a couple of hours later and had a whip round to cover the loss of his wallet, passport and cash, it struck me then as it strikes me now, that sometimes it's not a show of strength but being a better (global) citizen that gets the results that you need.