The Coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we live, the way we work, and the way we see the world. Relationships are being made and affected. Geopolitics is in a state that we’ve rarely seen before. Political views are being disregarded and changed.
It’s important, however, that fundamental aspects of our economic model, such as free trade, aren’t thrown by the wayside as strongmen across the world use the pandemic to make sweeping power grabs and erect barriers to freedom and prosperity. With borders closed around the world, and global supply chains disrupted, the moves from authoritarian leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, do not bode well for opponents of isolationism and protectionism.
Read more: Global trade falls during pandemic
But the fact is that, perhaps now more than ever, free trade is essential to promote economic development and create jobs. In normal times it would be wrong to ‘pull up the ladder,’ preventing some of the world’s poorest from accessing the benefits of international trade – and in the post-Coronavirus world, this would be even more damaging.
Due to an expansion of trade and investment flows across borders, poverty has fallen at an unprecedented rate in the last thirty years – and at a time when many developing countries, disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, will be trying to reboot their damaged economies, rich countries should be doing all they can to help them take advantage of world markets.
Proposals, such as the current amendment doing some limited rounds in the House of Commons, that would force poorer countries (or anybody trading with the United Kingdom) to mirror our production standards in order to trade with us, do nothing but erect barriers to global development – and threaten to have a worrying impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable countries as they attempt to scale back up in the wake of Covid-19.
By calling for the continuation of tariffs on food imports, currently applied by the EU, after Brexit, former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers and others are ignoring the needs of many developing countries – who are often Commonwealth members. Whilst, of course, we should be encouraging a ‘race to the top’ in terms of standards on production, we need to recognise that there are going to be significant barriers and obstacles for developing nations to achieving this. Can we really be sure, for example, that all small holder Kenyan coffee growers, or Ivorian cocoa farmers, meet the same standards as set out in the Climate Change Act, the Control of Pollution Act, the Environmental Protection Act, or the Wildlife and Country Act?
That is, of course, not to say that we should not be working alongside partners in the world – encouraging them to raise their standards – and it is key that international development funds continue to go to this very purpose. It’s also not to say that we shouldn’t continue to ensure that food produce meets the stringent food safety standards currently in place in the United Kingdom – a key public health demand. But forcing impractical requirements on production on to countries working to develop strong trading relationships and grow their economies.
Of course standards matter – and in the post-Brexit, post-Coronavirus world, the United Kingdom should aim for an integrated approach which encourages our trading partners to raise standards across markets. This should, certainly, be a key aspect of the integrated foreign policy, security and defence review that should eventually become a key focus of the government. But in order to achieve higher standards across the globe, we must first work with those partners to build the global economy back to full strength – and that means refraining from putting up arbitrary barriers to trade and development.
Free trade saves lives. Taking steps during the Coronavirus pandemic to promote the movement of goods which is so important to the global economy, and meeting the needs of key institutions such as the NHS, is imperative. Last week, Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, announced that essential medical supplies would be exempt from import duty and VAT – ensuring key medical workers can access the supplies they need, more quickly.
Steps like that – taking down barriers rather than putting them up – will be key to developing the global economy when the pandemic has subsided. In times not quite as fraught as these, erecting barriers should be avoided. In the Coronavirus age, and after it, free trade is more important than ever.