A core part of the case for leaving the EU was that the UK could negotiate its own trade deals with countries outside the EU, rather than being dependent on reaching a deal which satisfied all 28 members. It’s one of those stories which is entirely ‘true’, but which isn’t exactly the whole truth.
In the first place, it obviously requires the services of a significant number of skilled and experienced trade negotiators to hold simultaneous parallel negotiations with a number of other countries and trading blocs; but in the second place, on the question of principle, I never really understood why anyone would believe that a country with a population of 65 million was going to get a better deal with all these other countries than a trading bloc with an internal market of some 500 million. It just seems counter-intuitive, somehow.
Anyway, back to the question of these skilled and experienced trade negotiators. The first and most obvious problem is that the UK doesn’t currently have many of them – perhaps none. The simple reason for that is that we haven’t needed them for most of the past 40 years; trade negotiations have been handled collectively by the EU rather than individually by the member states. So we’ll need to recruit some – but from where?
I quite liked this story a couple of weeks ago. I suspect that the offer was made with tongue firmly in cheek, but New Zealand was offering to ‘lend’ the UK its own top trade negotiators for a while to see the UK through its immediate problems. That might work, although the problem is more than a short term one. A long term future outside the EU will require more than borrowing a few experts from the other end of the world for a few years.If I were looking to recruit the right people for this role, I think I’d start in Brussels. That’s where we find some of the most experienced negotiators, and many of them will have the language skills as well. Poaching them might mean offering them more than they’re currently being paid, of course. But the delicious irony here is that the pro-Brexit ministers newly appointed to look after these issues, fresh from a campaign in which they have been arguing for controls on immigration from the rest of the EU might find that one of their first tasks is … to recruit people from other EU countries to fill key roles in trade negotiations.