In August last year, the CBI joined forces with the TUC, Trade Justice Movement, Which?, International Chamber of Commerce, Unite and many others to publish this short paper on the principles we wanted to underpin any future governance model for developing trade policy in the UK after Brexit.
At the time, it didn't get huge amounts of press. But what we did achieve was a nod of approval from the Department of International Trade and a commitment to consider our proposals carefully when developing their plans for trade governance.
Fast forward nine months and we now have concrete plans in the form of proposals announced last week for the creation of a new Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG) which will act as a sounding board for the Trade Policy Minister on future negotiations and policy. Carolyn Fairbairn, our Director-General, will be representing the views of the business community as part of the new group.
This is welcome progress. But it also raises a few questions. So here are a few thoughts on why this is important, what the CBI will be trying to bring to the table and what needs to happen next.
Why does this matter?
Of the many possible answers to this, there are two really important ones:
First, as we've seen with the Brexit process, questions of trade policy can be hard. They are incredibly technical; cut across many areas of public policy-making; impact different parts of the economy in different ways, creating winners and losers; and often against the backdrop of a lack of political consensus. That's not just the UK experience, it's a truism around the world and something we've heard from trade negotiator after trade negotiator as we've considered best practice. With all that in mind, we think it's really important to have an overarching group which brings together all interested parties, creates the space for a confidential exchange of views, and, ideally, facilitates compromise and consensus building. The STAG can do just that.
Second, we need to regain public trust in trade. Companies value trade agreements and, in their view, the evidence that free trade has been hugely beneficial for economic growth, security and poverty alleviation all over the world is clear and compelling.
But I also remember the experience of trying to make this argument around the UK during the last attempt at negotiations between the United States and EU (the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership negotiations) and realising, very quickly, that we had lost the argument with the general public. In many cases, rightly or wrongly depending on your outlook, they saw the negotiations as a threat to jobs, standards and the NHS.
Pew Research Centre has done some fascinating analysis recently on public attitudes to trade, with can give us some reassurance that the argument is there to be won, but to do that effectively we need to walk the talk on making trade policy more transparent and inclusive. Again, the creation of the STAG can be a catalyst for this change.
So what will the CBI be bringing to the table?
The answer is pretty simple: facts, data and evidence about the impact of trade policy decisions on the whole UK economy. Our own governance model – offices in nine English regions, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – and a sector association membership spanning over 140 associations, from financial services to farming, leaves us well placed to do this.
And while it's not our job to pick one sector, region or nation over another, what we can do is shine a light on sectoral, regional and national trade-offs to ensure that political judgments are taken in full knowledge of the facts.
What happens next?
Thanks to Brexit, the scope of the UK's trade policy will not be determined until political decisions are made about the nature of the future trading relationship it will seek with the European Union. Whether the UK will or won't seek to negotiate a customs union with the EU is clearly the most significant, but by no means the only decision to be made.
These decisions have implications for business. Will the STAG, for example, be restricted to simply guiding the Department for International Trade on trade negotiations and policy outside of the future EU negotiation? If so, how will our trade policy priorities change from the current stated objectives if the UK decides to seek a customs union? And how will discussions in the STAG dock in to (presumably) a different structure somewhere else in government for guiding the EU negotiations? Ultimately these are decisions for politicians to take.
For business, what is required is clarity about the political direction of travel, the rules of engagement, and, very importantly, evidence that different bits of Whitehall are on the same page. Unfortunately all have too often been in short supply in recent times.
An opportunity to lead?
Travelling around the world over the past three years, I've asked many former trade negotiators, government officials and trade wonks one question: what's your one piece of advice for the UK when setting up its engagement with stakeholders on trade? Everyone's answer included the admission: "no-one does this perfectly, so you have an opportunity to lead".
So here's a call to arms: let us grasp the silver lining Brexit has given us in the huge interest it has created on trade and invest our collective energy in defining what leadership looks like. Let's create an approach to developing trade policy in the UK which is transparent, inclusive, deserving of public trust and re-asserts a consensus about the huge benefits of trade for people and communities all over the world. The new Strategic Trade Advisory Group can - in fact I'd say must - kick-start this thinking.