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What's the point of a trade mission when Britain can't sign a trade agreement?

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What's the point of a trade mission when Britain can't sign a trade agreement?

Post  Panda on Tue 29 Oct - 2:44

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Daniel Hannan

Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.

What's the point of a trade mission when Britain can't sign a trade agreement?

By Daniel Hannan Politics Last updated: October 15th, 2013

180 Comments Comment on this article

Like Marco Polo, modern emissaries are reduced to gawping

The question must have occurred to Boris Johnson and George Osborne as they made their tour of China. China grew at 6.6 per cent last year while the eurozone shrank. The world is tipping: its economic centre of gravity is running east across the Russian steppes at 90 miles a day. This need not be bad news for the West: a rising giant lifts others, with or without meaning to.

Yet the United Kingdom cannot sign a commercial trade accord with China. Nor, for that matter, with any other country. We surrendered that power on 1 January 1973, the day we joined the EEC. And so, like Marco Polo, our politicians go to Cathay to gawp and marvel and write in awe of the wonders they have seen, but have no power to conclude economic treaties. They are reduced to talking about Downton Abbey because they can't talk about tariff reduction or mutual product recognition.

Ah, say the Euro-enthusiasts, but that's precisely why we need the EU. On our own, they tell us, we would be little more than supplicants. But as part of a 28-member bloc, we can look the Chinaman in the eye. Oh really? Tell that to the Swiss who, a few weeks ago, signed their own FTA with Beijing.The Chinese were evidently happy to deal with a country of 8 million people, perhaps because Switzerland did not carry the EU's protectionist hang-ups into the talks. Indeed, the only other European state with which the Chinese have signed a commercial treaty is also outside the EU: Iceland. That's right, Iceland, whose population is half of one per cent of ours. Britain, left to its free-trading instincts, would surely have signed an FTA with China years ago – probably including financial services, where there are colossal opportunities.

Whenever a British minister goes to an emerging leviathan – Brazil or Indonesia or India – he gives fine speeches, backed by statistics, about how the prosperity of the developing world will spill over into the UK. Yet he knows that there is nothing he can do nothing to effect this happy outcome. Britain, unlike Bolivia or Botswana or Bangladesh – cannot negotiate trade deals. Because we are the only member state which conducts the majority of its trade outside the EU, this disadvantages us more than the other 27.

At this point, some cleverdick usually jumps up to say that Germany sells more to China than we do. Yes: Germany is benefiting from an artificially cheap exchange rate as a result of the euro crisis, and good luck to it. But though I delight in German's good fortune, it has no bearing on whether Britain should be free to negotiate its own FTAs.

We are a merchant people, a race of explorers and settlers, a maritime nation. The revolution in communications has made our geographical proximity to Europe less relevant than ever. As I never tire of pointing out, every continent on the planet is now growing economically except Europe. The politicians and officials coming back from these tours of China know it. It is only a matter of time before they follow the logic of their own speeches.
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