BrexitCentral: Ministers must urgently ramp up engagement with trade associations to get more British firms exporting

In an interview last November, Liam Fox observed that “we need to think about how we can make our economy export ready… and how we get more of our companies to think about exporting overseas… I can agree as many trade agreements as I like, but if British business doesn’t want to export, then that doesn’t do us any good.” He has, therefore, clearly recognised that UK export performance throughout the years of the EU’s Single Market has been inadequate, and that new trade agreements alone will not help. What is not so clear is whether his department has yet devised the policies to solve it.

The Department for International Trade (DIT) website shows that it is engaged in familiar trade promotion functions inherited from UKTI, such as providing risk assessments of world markets, funding participation in trade shows and appointing local trade advisors. It is not short of imaginative initiatives, such as tips for exporting via social media, entrepreneurial dealmakers/mentors for start-ups, and the designation of experienced diplomats as the ‘trade commissioners’ for those parts of the world they know best.

It has set itself a daunting research agenda, which will keep its own staff or contractors fully engaged for decades, and also defines the principles that will guide the UK’s post-Brexit “proactive role in the rules-based multilateral trading system”. One of them is a commitment to a trade policy that is “transparent and inclusive” and supported by a “comprehensive stakeholder engagement programme” embracing Parliament, devolved governments, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, local government, business, trade unions, civil society, consumer groups. In the post-Brexit years we can, therefore, expect intensified public argument about chlorinated chicken, GM foods, investor-state disputes, privatised health care and so forth.

However, none of these activities – useful as they may be – focus on the problem Dr Fox identified, or seem likely to reach the tens of thousands of non-exporting SMEs in the UK or persuade them to think about exporting. To do that, the DIT will have to form a new, rather special relationship with one set of business stakeholders who barely rate a mention on their website: trade associations. According to the Trade Association Forum, there are now more than 2,500 of them in the UK – and they are the indispensable intermediaries if the DIT hopes to reach those who make decisions about whether or not to export. No one else can do it.

Unfortunately, it is not certain that many of them are ready, willing or able to share in the tasks of redirecting their members towards export markets, and of helping them to do so. The CBI, which describes itself as “the UK’s premier business organisation”, seems to be preoccupied with postponing Brexit or limiting its impact, rather than preparing its members for it. If the majority of associations had been keen to improve the export performance of their members, many more UK firms would now be certified as authorised economic operators (AEOs).

To read Michael Burrage’s piece for BrexitCentral in full, click here.

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