The UK’s top civil service trade negotiator has said the opportunities of Brexit are “enormous” and that people will look back and ask, “why were we so negative about our future?”.
Crawford Falconer, the Department for International Trade’s second permanent secretary, said that contrary to the scepticism dogging the department about the UK’s ability to cut better trade deals outside of the EU, the world was “begging” to trade with the UK.
Falconer, who also serves as head of the government’s trade negotiation profession, made the comments in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine yesterday.
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In his first full interview since being appointed in June 2017, Falconer said after Brexit there will be a “period of adjustment, both psychologically and economically”, but that Britain’s fortunes will get better.
He added: “But keep your eye on the endgame. The opportunities are enormous. There are so many, where do I start? In 10 years, maybe even quicker, people will look back and say, ‘Oh, why were we so negative about our future?’”
Crawford told the Sunday Times Magazine that the “world is begging for the UK to be able to trade with it”.
“The world is the UK’s oyster,” he said, reeling off a list of Britain’s tradeable “world-class services”, including banking, insurance, intellectual property rights, law, architecture and design.
Other countries need these services to become more efficient themselves, he added. “We’ll be pushing on an open door.”
He said the countries that the EU has agreements with were “more than happy” to make similar agreements with the UK, while those that haven’t yet started negotiations with the EU, such as Australia and New Zealand, were “clamouring to start with us”.
Falconer also said a UK free from the constraints of the European Union will have the opportunity to be more ambitious about trade, citing digital services and agriculture as areas where EU regulations are outdated and stifling innovation.
“We’ve been part of a collective entity that has certain strengths, but it also travels as fast as the slowest carriage in the train,” he said.
Crawford refused to be drawn on a question about whether he will stay at DIT until the end of the transition period, which could last five years. “I have a contract, the terms of which remain private to me and the employer,” he said.
This follows a report in February that Falconer felt marginalised in Brexit negotiations and had threatened to resign, which DIT dismissed as rumours.
Crawford, a dual-national UK and New Zealand citizen, previously served as New Zealand chief negotiator and advisor, New Zealand ambassador and permanent representative to the World Trade Organization, and more recently as a professor at Lincoln University.
Also interviewed by the Sunday Times Magazine, DIT’s permanent secretary Antonia Romeo insisted that the department’s work will not be wasted even if the government and the EU end up agreeing to implement a soft Brexit.
“No matter what deal we end up with with Europe, there will be loads of trade negotiation we’re going to have to do,” she said. “We’re not just focusing on Brexit or even post-Brexit trade. We’re focusing on global trade. What we’re obsessed with is the UK’s position on the global stage in 10, 20, 30 years’ time.”
In an interview with Civil Service World this month, Romeo said the department was currently in talks with the Cabinet Office about how to structure the teams that will lead negotiations about post-Brexit trade deals with countries outside the EU. DIT will probably need to formalise the way it draws on expertise from other departments, she said.
The department now has around 3,500 staff, with a budget of £431.6m. The US, Australia and New Zealand are top of the department’s list of countries to negotiate a trade deal with after Brexit.