British trade minister Liam Fox has urged ministers from more than 30 Commonwealth countries to resist “seductive” trade protectionism on Thursday, eyeing the network of mostly former colonies as a way to boost post-Brexit trade.
The plea comes weeks, possibly even days, before Prime Minister Theresa May begins the process of Britain’s divorce from the European Union. That will force the world’s fifth largest economy to find new trade partners at a time when globalisation is under fire from populist, nationalist politics in several major economies.
Speaking at an event organised to try and reboot the Commonwealth, a 52-country alliance which includes the likes of India, Australia and Canada, as a champion of free-trade, Fox warned of a “rising chorus of protectionism”.
“Protectionism can be a seductive but false friend. I have described it as the Class A drug of the trading world: it can make you feel good at first but you pay a terrible price in the long term,” he said.
Dr Fox highlighted the UK’s commercial heritage, saying “for over a century the terms Britain and free trade were virtually synonymous”.
The minister, who backed leaving the EU, said the meeting was taking place “at a truly historic moment” for the UK following June’s vote.
He added: “Those of us, represented here today, have, through our shared history and experience, witnessed the transformation that trade can bring and have a duty to ensure that the benefits that we enjoy today are made available to future generations.”
“There are 52 member states in the Commonwealth, boasting a combined population of over 2.4 billion people.”
“Moreover, one billion of those Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 25, a vast pool of talent and resources that can help transform the world, if we ensure they have access to future trade and investment opportunities.”
The meeting came ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which takes place in the UK next year. Lord Jonathan Marland, the former business minister and current chairman of the meeting organiser, the Commonwealth Investment and Enterprise Council, told reporters one of the things to be discussed was a new “trade accord”.
He said business between Commonwealth members is due to rise from around £600 billion to £1 trillion by 2020 but, while member states account for a third of the global population, they carry out just 15% of trade.