Biden. It’s the Free Trade Agreement, Baby!

The famous 1970’s American actor, Tele Savalas, used to say, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’

As we reflect on President Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland, we might recall the splash of America glitz and affection that cheered our damp and cloudy Easter break.

Or we might have gotten a little carried away with the Americanisms of the ‘land of the free’ or our distant relatives on the ‘other side of the pond.’

He might not have said these exact words – but you get the gist. I certainly took from what he said to be warm, well meaning and encouraging.

Whatever our impressions of this historic Presidential visit, it majored on the potential economic opportunities for Northern Ireland – but on the condition that we all ‘play ball’ and restore power-sharing at Stormont.

President Biden said that ‘peace and economic opportunity go together’ and urged local politicians to resolve their differences to ‘help realise the enormous economic potential of this region.’

Peace and economic success may also be interwoven into our reconciliation process. Afterall, if we can harmoniously work and trade together and agree a joint economic vision for our future surely it makes everything else work a little easier?

President Biden is also famous for citing poetry in his speeches, so if I may offer my own economic analogy though the verses of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken.’

Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both.”

Relating this poetic verse to the out-workings of Brexit, and now the Windsor Framework, may be a little farfetched – but these issues have also presented us with choices about our future.

However, in our case the EU and UK have jointly confirmed that Northern Ireland, in terms of trading, can ‘have your cake and eat it.’ We simply do not need to choose which road to travel; we can journey along both routes and reap all the benefits!

You may say, ‘that’s great, but which of these roads is the most important to Northern Ireland?’

I would argue that both are. We often concentrate on the economic opportunities afforded to us by the EU Single Market whilst minimising the opportunities of the UK market. This is perfectly understandable as the EU Single Market provides access to 500 million EU Citizens and approximately 15% of the worlds trade in goods.

Given the current trading volumes, the success of the NI economy is directly linked to the success of the GB or UK economy. This is both confusing to some nationalists and unionists, as even though they often disagree with what happens at Westminster, a successful UK economy is essential to both of their main agendas.

For those of us who are neither nationalist nor unionist it is so much easier. As we are just looking for a thriving and successful economy.

Therefore, despite the different views at Stormont, it is an irony that all our interests are served best by having a successfully and prosperous UK/GB market.

However, please bear in mind that this is against a backdrop of recent depressing economic data. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the UK economy’s performance in 2023 will be the worst among the 20 biggest economies, comprising the G20 nations. It expects the UK economy to shrink by 0.3% in 2023, with nominal growth projected next year.

Now to the main point of this article:

How can we – in this small place of just 1.9 million people – influence regional and international markets to help boost the Northern Irish economy?

The answer to this question is ‘the elephant in the room’ – the issue that wasn’t mentioned during President Biden’s visit.

It is, of course, the proposed UK – United States Free Trade Agreement (UKUSFTA).

Securing a favourable UKUSTA would be an absolute game-changer for the UK’s economy. It would signal to other nationals across the world that the UK market is truly open for business. And this would be incredibly important to our local economy.

Furthermore, it is arguable that US / UK trade talks have also stalled for the last few years due to lack of progress relating to the out-workings of Brexit and restoration of power to Stormont.

However, we may be surprised to learn that we could have more leverage on this issue than we might suspect. Especially after President Biden’s visit.

The UK Government is desperate to secure a free trade deal with the United States ahead of the next General Election. And, as the nominations for the next Presidential race draw closer, the Americans (or more precisely, the Democrats) are desperate for some good news from this small, but important, part of the world to help bolster their campaign – running into 2024 and beyond.

Now, just imagine if most of the political parties here (for their own reasons) were to make a strong case to the US and UK governments to accelerate the UKUSFTA deal. This to help bring closure to the current stalemate at Stormont, along with a specific financial package.

This money could be used to help address the current budgetary pressures on Stormont’s departments, fund a transformation programme, and take advantage of the many opportunities from dual access to both the EU Single Market and the UK internal market.

Finally, to mix a bit of President Biden with Schwarzenegger and Kojak.

‘It’s the Free Trade Agreement, Baby!’

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