Are the Stakeholder Engagement Strategies in the UK Set Up for Success?
The following article was written by Lucinda Penney, Politics and Sociology Undergraduate at The University of Edinburgh and former intern at BAB.
There is no doubt that trade and investment generates growth, jobs and innovation, contributing to our society’s prosperity. This is certainly true in the case of the UK, Europe’s largest source of FDI, wherein over 1,349,000 jobs are supported as a direct result of US investment. Between 2017 and 2018, US investment alone created 26,570 new jobs, up 8% on the previous year. In addition, of the £547.5bn goods exported by the UK in 2016, £100bn were to the United States, resulting in a trade surplus of £34bn.
The Department for International Trade (DIT)’s recent announcement of consultations for future Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with three major trading partners, including the US, has demonstrated that the Government has made negotiating trade agreements a big priority for its political agenda. It is also a new opportunity for the Government to engage with its stakeholders.
Governments set the conditions for the way we trade, yet it is businesses and workers, and ultimately consumers, who will feel the direct impact of the environment that our governments create on trade. This is why it is of great importance that as consultations begin on potential new trade agreements, governments communicate the benefits of trade and investment to the public.
Public concern over the negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) highlights the extent to which a trade deal meant to benefit millions of consumers can fail due to lack of transparency, a misunderstanding of its objectives and ineffective communication.
Perhaps with the experience of TTIP in mind, the UK Government has introduced its plan on how to engage stakeholders on trade discussions. The DIT hosted over 280 meetings, and recently announced the establishment of a Strategic Trade Advisory Group, whose membership will represent business voices, non-governmental organisations and consumer groups. Its role will be to advise the Government on trade policy before and during the future free trade negotiations, which will shape our trade policy through high level strategic discussion by members of the public.
This approach is welcome; yet, when it comes to making a case for free trade with the United States among the wider public, the current strategy may not be enough.
Public debate around TTIP in the UK has shown that the knowledge and understanding of how international trade works and what a free trade agreement entails is relatively limited. In fairness, it is unreasonable to expect every member of the public to be a trade expert. Yet, unless the Government – and to a lesser extent, business – find a mechanism to effectively communicate with the wider public, there is a danger of losing again the debate on the benefits of trade and investment. Without a comprehensive approach, opposition groups may dominate the discussion in a way that is not balanced. During the TTIP negotiations, for example, opposition groups spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on advertisements against TTIP with misleading messages.
Much can be learned from past experiences. During the latter stages of TTIP negotiations, BritishAmerican Business, together with the UK Government, travelled across the UK to engage local communities and communicate directly how they may benefit from its implementation. Over the next few months, BritishAmerican Business will launch a series of discussions with undergraduate students at leading universities across the UK as to what the future transatlantic relationship could and should look like.
The debate around TTIP demonstrated that the public are interested in engaging with government on matters of trade, and the Government should make the most of this. It should look at how opposition groups communicate with consumers, and as we look towards future FTAs, this is more important than ever.
Transatlantic trade is in an extremely turbulent time. Our trading system needs to be resilient enough to meet the challenges of globalisation. It is even more important than ever that both consumers and businesses trust the government to make beneficial FTAs. Increasing and improving communication with the public on trade agreements is the key to guaranteeing stability and returning to a wide embrace of global trade.
 Confederation of British Industry. 2018. Sterling Assets Report 9.
 Department for International Trade. 2018. Inward Investment Results 2017-18.
 Office for National Statistics. 2018. Who Does the UK Trade With?