From February 1 Britain will start trade talks in earnest. Some claim that a deal with the US should be prioritised over a deal with the EU. Reports also suggest the UK government is considering opening trade talks with the US first or that running trade negotiations with both the EU and the US concurrently might help the government to play one side off against the other.
The government faces important choices as it sets priorities for trade negotiations. Not least because it also plans to negotiate trade deals with other countries including Australia and New Zealand and to improve trade ties with emerging economies, including India, as part of its strategy of promoting a “Global Britain”.
We surveyed more than 2,000 people to find out who the public’s preferred trade partners are and which sections of the economy they care most about when it comes to trade deals. We find significant divisions between Leave and Remain voters over their preferred trading partners and in terms of who they think has the upper hand in negotiations.
While Remain voters overwhelmingly prioritise a deal with the EU, Leave voters are much more interested in a US trade deal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Remain voters are generally more pessimistic than Leave voters about the UK’s prospects for securing advantageous trade deals.
Read more: Five options for Brexit trade explained
Which deal is most important?
We asked respondents to score different trading partners from 1 to 11, where 1 means it should not be a priority and 11 means it should be a top priority. Everyone scored each of the potential trading partners that we suggested quite highly. At the same time, they clearly saw some as more important than others.
Despite arguments that the EU represents a declining proportion of the UK’s trade, our findings suggest that, overall, the public still see the EU as the priority partner in future trade deals (with an average score of 9 out of 11). This is followed by Canada (average score of 8.5) and then the US (average score of 8.2). This could put significant pressure on the government if negotiations with the EU falter.
Divisions over Brexit appear to play a significant role in shaping voters’ priorities on trade. Those that voted Remain prioritise a deal with the EU, whereas Leavers prioritise a deal with the US followed by Australia (8.9). Leavers scored a trade deal with the EU as their lowest priority (7.9) and behind a deal with Canada, Japan, China or India.
With which of the following should the UK Government prioritise post-Brexit trade deals with?
Given the public support for a trade deal with other countries, including Canada, the government may also find pressure to engage in further simultaneous trade negotiations. Doing this might prove to be problematic when questions have also been raised about the government’s capacity or readiness to conduct a series of simultaneous negotiations given their complexity and demands on the civil service.
These findings also raise significant questions about what shapes the public’s trade priorities and the role of cultural, historic ties and language. The lower score for India suggests the public may still need convincing about a key aspect of the Global Britain strategy, which is developing trade relations with emerging trade powers.
What should trade deals cover?
To gain insights into the economic sectors that the public sees as the priority for trade deals after Brexit, respondents scored five different sectors between 1 and 11, with 1 indicating that the sector was not a priority and 11 indicating it to be a top priority. Here food scored highest (with an average score of 9.5).
This might reflect concern following reports of potential food shortages or empty shelves in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It could also reflect concerns around food safety in the event of a trade deal with the US, with chlorinated chicken and GM crops getting a lot of news coverage.
Alongside food, people also prioritise high tech services (mean score of 7.9) for trade deals. This is an area that will be particularly difficult to forge free trade deals with key partners such as the US. Meanwhile, the public do not see cars or motorbikes as a priority area for trade deals, but this is an area that the US has identified as one of its priority areas for an agreement. Significantly, we find limited differences between Remain and Leave voters.
Which sectors should the UK Government prioritise in its trade deals after Brexit?
Who will have the upper hand?
Overall, our respondents thought that each of the suggested trading partners would have the upper hand over the UK in trade negotiations (on a scale of 1 to 11 where 1 represents the UK and 11 represents the trade partner having the upper hand). Here the US was viewed as the most powerful trading partner (averaging a score of 7.3) followed by the EU (averaging a score of 6.9). It’s plausible that the public may conflate the geopolitical power of the US with its economic size and understate the size of the EU and Chinese economies.
Again, we find that divisions over Brexit structure attitudes towards new trade negotiations. For example, Remain voters tend to view other countries as having a much stronger hand in future trade negotiations. In comparison Leave voters appear to be more optimistic about the UK’s power in negotiations.
Who do you think would have the upper hand in trade negotiations between the following?
Our survey also suggests that the UK public might understate the economic power of some potential partners in trade negotiations. India was seen as having a weaker hand in negotiations than both Canada and Australia, despite having a larger economy than both, as ranked by the World Bank. This raises the prospect that citizens might feel too many concessions are being made to countries that are seen to be in a weaker position than economic realities suggest.
How the UK government will navigate public sentiment is another matter. Boris Johnson has spoken of healing the divisions surrounding Brexit.
A strategy of negotiating simultaneous deals with the EU and the US might appear to be a way to bridge differences between those who voted Leave and Remain. It may be a way of meeting the Remain preference for a trade deal with the EU and the Leave preference for a deal with the US. But our research suggests that the government may still face significant challenges in winning public support for the final terms of these deals.
Overall people thought that both the EU and US held the upper hand in negotiations. This raises questions as to whether the public may have become reconciled to an unfavourable deal. If they have not, then Remain voters in particular may be particularly aggrieved by the results of a UK-US trade deal given that their preference for deals are with other trade partners. Similarly, Leave voters might become particularly dissatisfied with the results of a trade deal with the EU given their lower preference for this and their relatively optimistic appraisal of the UK’s strength in negotiations.
As a result, free trade agreements are likely to become the next big battleground of political and economic grievances. Not least because our research suggests there may be considerable areas where the public misunderstand trade-related issues or have priorities that could prove problematic or out of line with economic realities.