Liam Fox – 2020 Speech on the Trade Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Liam Fox, the Conservative MP for North Somerset, in the House of Commons on 20 May 2020.

I will not go over the detailed points in relation to the Bill so eloquently made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I have to say that I recognised some of the phraseology in her arguments—but I want to deal with the context in which it is being brought forward.

During the long gestation of the Bill, a lot has changed. Not only have we had the covid crisis, which will have a fundamental effect on the global economy, but in 2019 we saw the culmination of many of the predictions that were made by the Department for International Trade. We predicted that we would see first a slowdown in the growth of global trade and then potentially a contraction of global trade itself. We watched through 2019 the WTO make predictions on global trade growth, down ​from 2.8% to 2.2% and 1.4%. It finally came in at 0.7%. The key element was that it contracted in Q4, which has generally in history presaged a downturn in the global economy.

That happened for a number of reasons. The US-China trade dispute had a general effect on global trade, and in particular we saw the shortening of global supply chains, as people sought to onshore and shorten global supply chains by minimising the import of intermediate goods. We saw the inevitable consequence of the trend over the decade of the G20 countries applying more and more non-tariff barriers to trade—quadrupling them in the first half of this decade—and they all matter. A bit of consumer protection here, a bit of environmental protection there and a bit of producer protection here are all justifiable in themselves, but they all add up. They have all resulted in a silting up of the global trading system, and the skies over the global trading system are now darkening with those chickens coming home to roost.

Why does it matter? It matters because a free and open trading system has been our route to the reduction in global poverty, with more than 1 billion people taken out of abject poverty in just one generation. There is another reason it matters, which is that access to prosperity, political stability and security are part of the same continuum. It is unthinkable that the wealthiest countries in the world should pull up the ladder behind us, stopping developing countries gaining access to the same levels of prosperity. It is absurd to believe that we can do that without seeing disruption in global security. If we deny people access to prosperity, do not be surprised if we see more mass migration and more radicalisation. We need to understand that we cannot separate the concepts. Those who wish to introduce protectionism into the global economy will have to bear the consequences of the actions they are currently embarked upon.

I want to see us, through this Bill and beyond, doing more on global trade liberalisation. Going back to where we were pre-covid will not be enough, because global trade was contracting. I was a proud Brexiteer, but I have never been a little Englander. My objection to the European Union in the era of globalisation was not the absurd notion that it was foreign, but that it was not foreign enough. It did not have global aspirations that were in tune with what we as a country wanted to see. Post covid, all the challenges we face together will be bigger, and we will have to work with all those who believe in free trade to put them right.

The UK exports 30% of our GDP. Germany exports 48% of its GDP, and OECD data shows that the trade slowdown has hit the European Union hardest of all in the global economy, with exports from the EU contracting by 1.8% in the third quarter of 2019, even before global trade itself contracted. That is the scale of the challenge that we face.

The Government’s proposed tariff regime reform is to be hugely welcomed, although it could be even more liberal yet. The new FTAs and the roll-over agreements allowed through the Bill are also to be welcomed. Those who put obstacles, political and otherwise, in the way of both the roll-over agreements and the new FTAs through largely pointless and irrelevant arguments need to understand the consequences to the wider global economy, as well as to our domestic prosperity, of doing so.​

My right hon. Friend was right when she talked about the bigger picture and how we must champion World Trade Organisation reform. Without it, we will be unable to maintain the rules-based system, which is already substantially under threat. The alternative to a rules-based system is the survival of the strongest, and that will have the biggest impact on the poorest countries. This is an area where we can give a lead as a country not only economically, but morally.