Free trade ‘manna from heaven’

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Kenneth Clarke, Minister without Portfolio and the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, has highlighted the major boost to the south west’s economy that a future free trade agreement between the EU and the US might deliver.

He told a meeting of small businesses from across the UK yesterday, that a successful deal would break down barriers to trade between the economies of the European Union and the United States, save exporters millions of pounds, generate new jobs, and create a new marketplace representing 47% of the world’s output. Negotiations are expected to begin this summer – President Obama has said he hopes to conclude a deal within two years.

Clarke’s comments come as new figures published by HM Revenue and Customs showed that total exports were worth nearly £3.4 billion to the south west between January and March 2013, a 4.8% increase on the previous year. It is forecast that the potential trade agreement, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, could help boost total exports for the UK as a whole by 1.3%, or around £19 billion, which Clarke called “manna from heaven”.

The quarterly figures also show exports to the US alone are currently worth £358.4 million to the region.

Clarke said: “The opportunities presented by this agreement for the south west could be extremely significant. I want to make sure the region’s small businesses benefit to the greatest possible extent, which is why I have spent this morning hearing what barriers they face in exporting to the US, and how we can ensure this trade deal tears them down.”

One local company setting its sights on the USA is Bodmin-based Harbour Brewing.

Co-founder Eddie Lofthouse recently took part in a UK Trade and Investment market visit to the USA and Canada. He said: “Our visit was really worthwhile and proved that North America is a really exciting place to do business.

“We met some fantastic people and received some very useful guidance and support about how to operate in this market. There is growing demand for artisan craft beers in America and UK producers are seen as being at the forefront of this active sector.

“The beer market in the USA is challenging, but very progressive, with a burgeoning micro-brewery culture and many different styles and varieties available. We are talking with two importers there to make sure we meet their expectations and get things just right in the long term.”

However, despite the recent improvements, the south west had the smallest total value of exports – £12.7 billion for the year ending March 2013. This is just 5.7% of England’s total and represents a 1.5% drop from the previous year.

Russell Jones, regional director for UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) in the south west said that while the annual fall was disappointing, the improvements in the last three quarters showed promising signs of encouragement.

He remarked: “It is disappointing that we have seen a dip in annual exports but we need to remember that the south west enjoyed a record year in 2011.

“Despite the fall, there are still positives when you look at the detail, such as the increasing number of exporters we have seen in the last three quarters. However, we cannot afford to be complacent – there is still much room for improvement and we want to see more companies stepping up to the international trade challenge.”

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