International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, today made what was described as a “bland” speech to the WTO.
Dr Fox was expected to signal that the UK would leave the EU single market and join the WTO as an independent member – a so-called ‘hard brexit’.
Instead, he largely avoided giving any details about the UK’s plans but did say that the WTO “has no greater champion than the UK in the push towards further trade liberalisation”.
The speech in full:
I would like to thank Roberto Azevedo for allowing me to speak at this important launch event.
Let me start with a quote which has long shaped my thinking on free trade:
“In every country it always is and must be the interest of the great body of the people to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest.”
No prizes for guessing that the author of the quote was none other than the father of modern liberal economics – Adam Smith.
I believe as much in the moral case for free trade as I do in its economic benefits.
People should be able to exchange their hard work for goods at mutually agreed prices – without the shackles of artificial barriers being placed on them by governments or market distorting practices such as dumping, export subsidies or state aid.
Trade should be fair as well as free.
I am therefore delighted to be speaking here at the WTO – the institution that is the bedrock of the international trading system: underpinning fundamental trade rules and providing the means through which these can be enforced.
You have facilitated negotiations that have taken an axe to red tape across borders, phased out distortive export subsidies and scrapped trillions of dollars’ worth of tariffs.
It is an agenda that not only needs to be continued but revitalised.
And the message I want to leave you with today is that, at the multilateral level, you will have no greater champion than the UK in the push towards further trade liberalisation.
We will lead the charge for a fair and rule-based system for global trade and investment.
We have a history as a great trading nation and, as we forge a new global role for ourselves we will carry the banner for free trade.
It’s an area I am passionate about because the benefits are clear.
Free trade puts the consumer first by forcing businesses to compete and countries to specialise.
It leads to higher efficiency, greater productivity as well as better quality and cheaper goods.
Businesses also benefit from a global customer base – a shop window of continents rather than domestic cities and towns.
They also benefit from the transmission of ideas and technology across borders.
And let’s assess the benefit to societies around the world: just look at the effect on the populations of developing countries that have started down the path of opening up their markets, and ask yourself whether there has been a greater emancipator of the world’s poor than free trade.
The glorious thing about free trade is that if the conditions are in place to allow it to flourish, no-one needs to lose out.
We all can benefit in the long run.
We must resist calls for protectionism and isolationism.
These voices seductively promise protection and security from outside forces, but ultimately result in greater instability and economic insecurity with often the poorest in society bearing the brunt.
Either we shape the forces of globalisation or they shape us.
This is not the time for a head in the sand approach.
We know that an increasingly interconnected world brings both benefits and risks.
Where there are benefits – such as in technology and trade – we must ensure they are felt by all and not just by a privileged few.
Where there are risks, let’s mitigate these through bold ideas and policies reflecting the quintessential British values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law which have already transformed much of our world.
This is why the World Trade Report on more inclusive trade is important and timely.
It rightly focusses on the currently unfulfilled potential of SMEs in the global market place.
SMEs are the lifeblood of any economy.
In the UK, small businesses account for over 99% of private businesses; they employ over 15 million people and generate nearly 50% of all private sector turnover in the UK.
The report explains that small firms are rightly seeing e-commerce as pathway to exporting but are less well represented online than larger firms.
In the UK, we are helping by making sure that 95% of UK premises will have super-fast broadband by 2017 and promoting an economy with improvements in both hard and digital infrastructure.
While more needs to be done, we hope that similar efforts are underway in all major economies so we can create a truly global digital marketplace.
The report also lays bare a lot of the work that still needs to be done to reduce tariffs which are hindering SMEs from exporting.
While progress has been made in certain sectors such as IT, this must be replicated in others at the multilateral level.
Looking more widely at our work in the WTO, the UK will continue to the lead the way on progressing the Trade Facilitation Agreement, which has proved vital in helping small businesses overcome slow and unpredictable customs processes.
I am delighted that we have committed £18million over 7 years to this aim as well as providing regulatory and infrastructure assistance to developing economies so they can use the agreement to trade their way to prosperity.
I would urge countries, which haven’t yet done so, to join us in ratifying this important measure.
We will remain a strong advocate for the International Trade Centre’s work in increasing the participation of female entrepreneurs.
Increasing the proportion of women in the global workplace is key to stability, security and prosperity.
With close to 10 million of the world’s SMEs owned by women, this is a hugely important area for ensuring sustainable economic growth and the fulfilment of our global development goals.
I therefore welcome the Centre’s ambition, through the ‘She Trades’ initiative, to help one million female entrepreneurs access markets by 2020.
Let me just finish by saying something about the UK’s future direction of travel.
The UK is a full and founding member of the WTO.
We have our own schedules that we currently share with the rest of the EU.
These set out our national commitments in the international trading system.
The UK will continue to uphold these commitments when we leave the European Union.
There will be no legal vacuum.
But this will not stop us pursuing a more liberalised trade agenda.
As I have said, the decision of the British people to leave the EU is not symptomatic of looking inwards but a people who want to take more control over our laws, our money and our borders.
We are a proud and outward-looking trading nation.
We want Europe to succeed and be a vibrant partner in global affairs, economics and security.
But in the era of globalisation we want to be free to help shape an even more transparent, more open and more liberal trading environment.
An environment that not only brings success to businesses large and small alike, but also stability to our societies and prosperity to our citizens.
And I think that’s a future worth fighting for.