Companies in the UK and the EU are on a “very steep learning curve” following the signing of their free trade agreement, the Dutch Ambassador to the UK has told an audience of Merseyside businesses.

His Excellency Karel van Oosterom was the keynote speaker on the latest webinar in Mersey Maritime’s Global Trade Outlook Series, organised in partnership with Western Union Business Solutions and Maritime UK.

“A couple of years ago our king (Willem-Alexander) said that that the UK was a close friend in the EU,” said Mr van Oosterom. “The deal that we now have is better than a no-deal. If there had been a no-deal Brexit and we had to trade on WTO rules, that would have been horrible.

“However, the deal we have now is not as good as what we had in the EU. The rules are fixed and implementation is the key… we are all on a very steep learning curve and mistakes will be made.”

Mr van Oosterom said it was in the interests of everyone to achieve a settled, working relationship. He said there were 22,500 Dutch companies who did business with the UK. He added the Netherlands could be a “gateway to the EU” for Merseyside firms.

Later in the webinar, Nawaz Ali, head of market insights at Western Union Business Solutions said the UK exported £27bn of goods to the Netherlands each year, second only to Germany at £36bn.

He added: “We are trying to identify where there are gaps in the deal. 

“There are also a lot of issues around food quality and safety and the UK and the Netherlands are trying to help each other on this. For example, the forms that are being used on food safety are not long enough and don’t cover everything they need to.”

Red tape

Mr van Oosterom pledged his country would continue to invest in co-operation between the Netherlands and the UK on maritime, naval and cultural matters. But he acknowledged the increase in red tape that Brexit and the new trade deal had brought.

“All of us are having to learn to adapt,” he said. “For Dutch companies to do business with the UK now means a lot more red tape. Before Brexit, moving goods from Amsterdam to Manchester was the same as moving goods from Amsterdam to Rotterdam. Now there is an extra cost.

“We will be adapting and learning as time goes on. And supply chains will also have to be re-engineered. Previously we could send a fruit basket from the Netherlands to the UK with pieces of fruit from other parts of the world. Now, each piece of fruit from outside the EU will need a certificate of origin. It makes things more complicated.”

He added that businesses in the UK that are trading with the Netherlands and other EU countries may want to consider opening an office in Europe and have an official registry, there. That could make doing business a lot easier, he said.

“The Netherlands has a great relationship with the UK and that will continue,” said Mr van Oosterom. “We might have to take a hit but our economies will carry on. In terms of the red tape we are looking at smarter logistics. We want to offer a gateway to the EU for UK companies wherever possible.”

Smart shipping

There were big opportunities for the Netherlands and the UK to work with each other and to increase trade, he insisted. He talked about co-operation in areas such as smart shipping, decarbonisation and energy from offshore wind, all topics to be discussed at the global COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow later this year.

“We wanted the UK to stay in the EU but Brexit is done and there are consequences,” he said. “There will be problems to address but it will not change the friendship and deep bond between our two countries. The Netherlands has the most liberal trade policies in the EU and the UK was always our best ally on that and we miss you. We can resolve our problems by working together.”

‘Global trade will bounce back strongly’

Nawaz Ali, head of market insights at Western Union Business Solutions, offered an expert analysis of how both Brexit, and the COVID-19 pandemic, was impacting on the UK and global economy, and offered an upbeat assessment.

He told the webinar: “We are in the most challenging economic environment for two generations. COVID-19 is the single biggest factor and the latest lockdowns, both in the UK and other countries, will mean economies will bounce back more slowly than we hoped.

“Growth expectations have been downgraded… but we have to remember that in most cases this crisis has not destroyed economic growth – but rather delayed. Global trade in goods is expected to bounce back sharply.”

He said one positive was that the uncertainty created before the Brexit trade deal had now dissipated and that companies were now more likely to make decisions on larger investments.

Mr Ali agreed with Mr van Oosterom on the importance of trade between the UK and the Netherlands and the opportunities it presented. He said the Netherlands was a valuable gateway for goods trade due to its transport infrastructure which, added, was rated the second-best in the world behind Singapore.

He also said the World Economic Forum had identified climate change, and extreme weather events, as one of the biggest challenges facing global trade. Mr Ali explained: “Climate change will be a big factor in the transformation of global trade. But it is not just about challenges – it also big opportunities in areas such as decarbonisation and offshore wind.”

Digital transformation

Digital innovation will also be transformational for the UK economy, he added, and it will be accelerated by investment into 5G networks. But he also flagged up potential conflict between the EU on professional and financial services.

“The free trade agreement is now signed but it did not include anything on financial services,” said Mr Ali. “There is a lot of concern in the EU that theUK will deregulate its professional and financial services sector in order to compete and attract more investment.”

On a more optimistic note, he concluded: “Currency volatility has an impact on trade and since the deal was signed those fluctuations have settled down. That is good for planning and good for confidence. The current exchange rate of €1.12 to the pound is very attractive for UK firms exporting to the EU.”

The webinar also featured a panel discussion. The panel included Arjen Uytendaal, managing director, Maritime By Holland; Martin van der Velde, manager – strategy and innovation at Portbase; Christina Wadlow, head of partnerships, Western Union Business Solutions; and Paul Hesk, managing director of Van Oord UK.

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