Brexit has caused a lot of uncertainty for UK importers and exporters. The difficulties facing many British companies trading overseas have become an inseparable part of Brexit debates. For many, the issue lies with the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
In an article on the Guardian, Gareth Stace, director general of the trade association UK Steel, argues that leaving the EU has the potential to cause a great deal of damage to exports and weaken the sector more.
In an attempt to present his views and the general steel industry’s position when it comes to its current issues and Brexit uncertainty, Stace admitted:
“There can be no doubt that the ongoing Brexit uncertainty has contributed significantly to British Steel’s problems. Unable to decipher what the UK/EU trading relationship will be in just five months’ time, planning has become fiendishly complicated for both UK exporters and their EU customers.” He also added that things have become more complicated with the EU’s recent measures seeking to prevent steel imports surging, a move that reflects a more general protectionist turn seen elsewhere.
As Stace wrote, “Post-Brexit, UK steel exports to Europe will be restricted by these measures, with a disorderly no-deal Brexit affecting them particularly badly.”
No deal Brexit is bad, but what about an orderly Brexit?
Stace elaborated on the question of whether a well-organised Brexit would improve things for steel exporters. For example, he questioned those who claim that with the UK being outside the EU, the government would support extensively the steel industry. As he argued, “the UK steel sector has no interest in operating under the support of state subsidies (we are vociferous critics of this practice in places such as China).”
He emphasised that the UK’s ability to provide state support was restricted nonetheless, due to its WTO membership, “which bans certain subsidies outright, and allows others to be counteracted by other WTO members with the imposition of ‘anti-subsidy duties’ – effectively closing off important export markets.” He also pointed out that the EU has already aligned itself in terms of state aid rules, so any agreement between the UK and EU would not be beneficially better. Similarly, other countries such as the US would also want to align themselves with the current provisions when they strike trade agreements with the UK, so the UK would not, in essence, enjoy any special treatment.
“Brexit would not provide greater trading opportunities”
The Brexiters’ mantra has been, since the beginning, based on the premise that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would come with the promise of striking limitless deals. Boris Johnson used this slogan in many occasions, but the “freedom to do our own trade deals,” as many Leavers have proclaimed, is not an easy fit. This is also the case for the steel industry. Stace clarified that Brexit would not come with the opportunity to strike many deals. As he said: “WTO tariffs on steel in developed countries are already zero, and the EU’s expanding list of FTAs is providing tariff-free access to many others. There is little advantage any new UK FTAs could offer.” Additionally, as UK-produced steel “qualifies as EU steel under complicated rules of origin within the EU’s FTAs,” this means that any European country can use it, whereas, after Brexit, UK steel “would be classified as UK not EU, reducing the attractiveness of it to EU manufacturers.”
In essence, Stace explained, “Brexit will not improve the situation for the steel sector but it has the potential to cause a great deal of damage.” For him, the biggest priority is to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible. And this is what most businesses are also demanding.