We need to take back control of our trade policy

“Trade policy”, says the EU Commission, “is an exclusive power of the EU – so only the EU, and not individual member states, can legislate on trade matters and conclude international trade agreements”. This obviously has serious, wide-ranging implications which are have not been adequately discussed or honestly spelled out to the public.

It means, of course, that we cannot take the initiative in trade policy. Clearly this means we cannot pursue and conclude our own trade agreements independently but it also means that rather than having the freedom to choose alliances and coalitions in matters of trade we are locked in to the same bloc no matter the situation and are always bound to the common position in global forums.

In a globalised world we need flexibility, agility and the ability to act independently. Yet we do not have the ability to pursue simpler sector specific, unbundled trade deals and partial scope agreements that can be negotiated and concluded more rapidly than vast, complex agreements that take years and risk collapsing.

We are not able to pursue a multilateral approach and engage with the global trading system which would drive globalisation and bring far more wide-ranging benefits than exclusionary trade blocs and bilateral agreements.

The Remain side continually make the redundant argument that we need to stay in the EU to get a “say in the rules of the market” and that being part of a wider trade bloc gives us more clout, which makes up for that fact that the EU negotiates on our behalf, votes on our behalf and is increasingly keen to increase its influence on global bodies in which it currently has “observer status”.

However, now that we have a rapidly evolving system of global bodies that exist to facilitate equitable cooperation between nations and encourage a multilateral approach to trade; why is it to our benefit to be represented by the EU and have no independent voice and no right of veto to protect our interests? The whole point of international bodies is for them to act as neutral forums for nations to negotiate agreements and debate policy as equals; yet the UK is subordinated to the EU and locked into a 28 nation bloc and bound by the common position.

The alternative to this is not to “go it alone” as the Remainers would say, before telling us how feeble our country is. We would work constructively with other nations that share our interests. As and when we need to the UK would still work in a “bloc”; we would build coalitions to pursue a common goal but the key is that we’d have the flexibility to choose our alliances according to the situation and have the free choice of who to form them with.

We can cooperate internationally on an intergovernmental basis. There is no isolationism on offer.

It is true to say that often it is very much in our interest to work with our allies in the EU but it is a total false dichotomy to imagine that if we left the EU we would always then be in opposition to its position or would cease working alongside them when we have shared interests. We would still work closely with Member States when we share common ground and vote with the EU common position accordingly.

If, however, it is in our interests to ally ourselves with other nations to advance a position then we would gain the ability to do so after leaving the EU and we would have a right of reservation when a decision goes against our interests and risks having adverse effects if actioned at a national level.

So if we are still able to exert influence and work with the EU, but also gain an independent veto and the choice of building coalitions with other countries; why should we not regain control of our trade policy and sit as an independent nation in the top tables of the world?

An interesting example is the automotive industry. Britain has been exporting a record amount of cars in recent years and we have been warned that foreign manufactures will relocate if we leave the EU as we would no longer have any say over the regulation of the industry. This warning rings hollow because in the car industry Geneva is the place to be to exert influence on the rules.

The transport division of UNECE, an organisation that exists to encourage economic cooperation and integration in Europe, provides secretariat services to the World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29), and has been doing so for more than 50 years.

The World Forum incorporates into its regulatory framework the technological innovations of vehicles relating safety and environment impact. WP 29 was established on June 1952 as “Working party of experts on technical requirement of vehicles”.

The core of the Forum’s work is based around the 1958 “Agreement concerning the adoption of uniform technical prescriptions for wheeled vehicles, equipment and parts which can be fitted and/or be used on wheeled vehicles and the conditions for reciprocal recognition of approvals granted on the basis of these prescriptions”. This was augmented by a further Agreement in 1998.

As explained on Wikipedia here, these form a legal framework wherein participating countries agree a common set of technical prescriptions and protocols for type approval of vehicles and components.  The UNECE instruments, as quasi-legislation, have no mandatory effect until converted into laws by the contracting bodies signatory to the agreements.

Many non-European countries are now contracting parties to the Agreements and the resultant regulations are officially entitled “UN Regulations”. Through this each contracting party’s type approvals are recognised by all other contracting parties and thus transnational trade is facilitated.

There are currently 57 signatories to the Agreements, which includes non-EU countries such as Norway, Japan and South Korea. The EU is also a part, and according to this 2011 report when it comes to dealing with the World Forum, the European Commission, on behalf of EU Member States, seeks to “continuously increase their involvement in the Geneva technical legislative process, in particular by working within WP.29 and its subsidiary bodies in order to ensure harmonisation between UNECE Regulations and EU legislation”.

Thus the EU’s regulations on the general safety of motor vehicles have been replaced with UN Regulations. Although said regulations may have an “EU label” on them; they are not EU regulations any more. They are made in Geneva, not Brussels. So via UNECE an independent UK would have the ability to influence regulations before they are rubber stamped by the EU; the assertion that we would have “no say” is a myth.

Dealing with UNECE is part of trade policy so when it comes to the agreeing the proposed standards and making the important final decisions we take a back seat along with other Member States. The European Commission “exercises the right to vote in WP.29 on behalf of the EU and its 27 Member States”. Despite the UK having major vehicle manufacturing interests, we have no direct vote on vehicle standards. This is an unnecessary loss of national power and control that we can regain by leaving the EU.

Meanwhile Norway, that poor, backwards, non-EU country with no influence on anything, is a full member of UNECE and takes part in the World Forum.  As an independent nation, it represents itself in the committees and votes on its own behalf. Despite having no indigenous manufacturing industry, it takes an active part in the proceedings. This is a ludicrous situation, if they can why can’t we?

If we leave the EU, when we decide to promote a certain point of view in a global forum there would be no need to negotiate with numerous other countries and the EU Commission, which often results in a diluted or compromised version of that message, we could just go ahead put forward our view. When we want to get something done we can build coalitions and work with other nations, including EU Member States. There will be no isolationism and no “going it alone” but a regaining of our freedom act and the ability to choose.


Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Web Editor.  He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

Follow @con4lib on Twitter

Like Conservatives for Liberty on Facebook

The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty