For two consecutive weeks in June, there was news of Government departmental mergers. At the end of last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans for the Department for International Development to merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Just a week later, the Westminster rumour mill suggested the Department for International Trade would follow suit. Should the expected fate of the latter come to fruition, both Departments will no longer be independently functioning bodies of Government and will be ceded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The intention seems to be to streamline missions abroad and focus everything with an international outlook into one department. The justification may be Governmental austerity, trimming the fat off three departments into one could save millions of pounds every year, rather than slashing public services. Or, it may be to embolden the power grip Number 10 has over its Government Ministers. It is clear from Boris Johnson’s tenure as PM so far, he is keen to create a concentrated epicentre so he can exert his influence more easily.
An independent United Kingdom will be free to establish new diplomatic ties, as well as invest and trade without the need for any European Union bureaucrat’s seal of approval.
This may prove effective. Having just one department to control rather than three on similar missions, should make it easier to deliver his vision for the country. However, it comes at a conspicuous time. The deadline whereby an extension to the Transition Period may be granted, expired on July 1st. We are now less than 6 months until the end of the Transition Period – Deal or No Deal – on 31st December, meaning an independent United Kingdom will be free to establish new diplomatic ties, as well as invest and trade without the need for any European Union bureaucrat’s seal of approval.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office is a good idea. Our investment in international development is rigid, spread over many years and is rarely subject to annual change due to being closely linked to GDP – it shouldn’t take a full department to manage this.
However, until February this year the UK did not have the autonomy to forge trading relations, as this was all done through Brussels. So, to eliminate the Department for International Trade, the body which is solely responsible for trade at a time when we finally regain the national competence to do so would be, quite frankly, bizarre.
It is becoming more evident trade negotiations with the EU are not going very well. It seems there is a requirement for both sides to agree the equivalence of terms on financial services by September and talks on fishing rights continue to be fraught, when agreement on these and other issues should have been reached by now. Let’s hope the escalated weekly talks scheduled for every week during July end with more clarity as the UK should be concentrating its attention elsewhere by now.
he EU, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, has commenced trade talks with the United States, Japan and Australia; last week Turkey and Vietnam were added and this week a commitment has been made with Kenya to establish a trade deal before the end of the Transition Period. The Department has also established negotiations with Switzerland for a Bilateral Investment Treaty. In addition, last week, a modelling review was launched, intended to streamline trade missions and pinpoint the most valuable and necessary sources of trade the country needs.
Finally we are seeing signs of innovation and fresh thinking within Whitehall. Now is not the time to kill this innovation.
Prior to the creation of the Department for International Trade, the FCO was the office responsible for trade. Yet, for 20 years it failed to establish strong trading relationships. Between 1999 and 2019, our balance of payments with non-EU countries only increased by £1.7 billion. When the trade office was created and usurped trading responsibilities, within two years, it increased global exports by £70 billion. To merge the two offices would be seriously counterproductive.
The previous Deputy Director of Australia’s former Aid Agency, Richard Moore, said 2,000 years of development experience vanished after the agency merged with their Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2013 – predicting a similar loss of expertise in the UK regarding the Departmental mergers, unless measures are taken to retain experienced and skilled staff.
The UK needs all hands on deck to take full advantage of post-Brexit opportunities. We cannot waste all our hard work getting to this point, just to take our foot off the gas now. We must Get Britain Out of the Transition Period with a fully-fledged army of experienced trade diplomats ready to transform our foreign policy, and not just rely on a single lacklustre department, over-encumbered with responsibilities and a dire track record on forging trade relations across the world.
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