June 2017 - Article 50, time to take a strategic look at trade
Amid the chaos of the UK election aftermath, the Article 50 process to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU will start. The UK so far has relied on a conciliatory Europe led by a Germany that was genuinely saddened by the loss of its like-minded Anglo-Saxon ally and therefore more likely to drive the bloc towards compromise. The G7 and NATO summits at the end of May, and the inauguration of President Macron have changed all that. Europe is finding a new assertiveness on the global stage. This was articulated by Chancellor Merkel in her Munich speech; she argued that the US and the UK could no longer be relied upon and that Europe must find its own voice to promote its own interests. And while much of the rhetorical anger in the speech may simply be attributed to electioneering, it serves as a wake-up call to the UK. Europe will have its own strategic interests when it starts the negotiations and the UK would do well to be aware of what these are.
Trade is political and this makes it strategic – that is, something that can be used as a tool to promote national or regional interests in economic or foreign policy terms. In this, EU negotiators will be keen to protect Europe’s economic and energy security as well as increasingly focused foreign policy interests.
The EU’s top ten export and import trade flows by sector with the UK are automotives, machinery (including computers), pharmaceuticals, electrical equipment and oil and gas (Figure 1). The top fifteen trade flows by sector add optical, photographic and medical equipment, plastics and aerospace. These are not just the top trade sectors for the EU as a whole; they are also among the top sectors for Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and the UK.
Given that Europe exports to the UK some 85% more than it imports from the UK, it has been assumed that the cards are stacked in the UK’s favour. However, trade “wars” are reciprocal: one side imposes tougher arrangements and the other retaliates. As these are the top sectors for the UK as well, and as Europe is the UK’s largest export destination for each of these sectors, it will be important to bear in mind that the symbiotic relationship in these sectors are because of Europe-wide supply chains. Everyone will lose without some compromise.
Figure 1: Top 15 trade flows by sector between EU and UK (exports and imports, 2016, US$ bn)
Source: Equant Analytics, 2017