Even though it is home to many of the world’s leading exporters, the UK as a whole is underperforming when it comes to external trade, particularly amongst small and medium-sized businesses.
And with strong economic headwinds in Europe – responsible for more than half of British exports – there is no more important time to make sure the EU is doing its bit to help boost UK trade.
EU free trade agreements can make a real difference to British exporters. They make it easier for business to get their products into overseas markets. They not only eliminate border barriers like import duties, but they can also tackle more complex ‘behind-the-border’ trade barriers like additional regulatory requirements.
This is why TTIP – a particularly important EU free trade deal – is an entirely sensible initiative. Without TTIP, the UK is at a systematic disadvantage to the likes of Canada, Australia and South Korea, all of which have FTAs already signed and in force with the United States.
And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership is finalised as predicted later this year, the competitive situation for the UK will get even worse. We simply cannot afford to stand back whilst other countries steal a march and negotiate free trade deals with the US without negotiating one of our own.
So what will TTIP mean in practical terms? First, there will be new opportunities for small and mid-sized companies to export. These firms are hit hardest by trade barriers given they often do not have the time, budget or in-house legal expertise to counter trade roadblocks. Measures to reduce customs bureaucracy would help small companies to ship their products more quickly with less form-filling, saving precious time and money that can be better utilised elsewhere.
TTIP is not just for manufacturers – the services economy stands to gain too. TTIP should level the playing field in sectors like air and maritime transport, telecoms and reinsurance, dealing with some of the long-standing restrictions that still exist in the US market.
TTIP can make it easier for UK business personnel to temporarily move to and from the States, helping British engineering and consultancy companies to deliver contracts for US clients. And with UK firms already exporting nearly £50 billion of services to the US in 2013, there is a strong platform from which TTIP can support the next generation of exciting UK services companies wanting to succeed in the US.
Over the last 20 years, a large part of the EU Single Market’s success has been its ability to break down cross-border regulation barriers in Europe. We must now use the EU as a launch-pad to break down those remaining barriers to trade not only with the US but beyond, to Japan, India and elsewhere.
Negotiations will remain tough – as they should be - but it is in everybody’s interests to get TTIP concluded as soon as possible for the long-term benefit of both the EU and US economies.
The rewards for all of our citizens will be well worth the hard graft.<p/>
Regional director - North East