Like many of you, last week was spent with interrupted sleep, a constant eye on US news channels and fingers crossed. This weekend brought with it the news that, subject to legal challenge, Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States.
Putting the politics briefly to one side, this has been a historic moment in US election history with a record turnout set against the context of a global pandemic. It also, however, marks an important moment for geopolitics, and for the UK.
Following Brexit, the UK has its first opportunity in 40 years to pursue an independent global trade policy and the government made clear at the beginning of the year that a free trade agreement with the US was its top priority. The change in guard at the Oval Office however, reduces the prospects of a deal being done quickly and potentially the nature of trading relations around the world.
Firstly, a Democrat administration delays the possibility of a US-UK agreement and puts more pressure on the UK to secure a deal with the EU. After his inauguration in January, Biden needs to appoint his officials, deal with pressing domestic issues such as Coronavirus recovery and decide on his foreign policy priorities – he will not wish to immediately deliver a gift wrapped trade deal from his predecessor. It is therefore reasonable to expect talks to be put on hold until later in 2021. As the UK cannot rely on striking a quick deal with the US, the pressure on agreeing a deal with the EU becomes more acute.
Secondly, it is worth noting that Biden ran his campaign as the anti-Trump choice, the antithesis to the last four years of US leadership. The UK government has spent significant time seeking to build positive relations with Trump, in sharp contrast to some other European leaders. Boris Johnson and President Trump have been presented as kindred anti-establishment spirits. Trump not only endorsed Brexit, but invited one of the prime architects, Nigel Farage, out on the campaign to introduce him to supporters, without a hint of irony, as the ‘most powerful man in Europe’. This leaves the UK government with some very careful manoeuvring to do to ensure that a trade deal is not tarnished by its association with Trump.
Thirdly, for global trade relations, a Biden administration will prioritise restoring the US’s key role in international organisations such as the UN, WTO and NATO. Donald Trump’s desire to be ‘dealmaker-in-chief’ saw his administration ripping up multilateral deals with perhaps the most notable being the departure from the Paris Climate Agreement only days ago. Joe Biden has said he will re-join that agreement upon taking office and this is likely to be the first step in a renewed American internationalism. The UK, with its own newly independent voice in multilateral institutions, is well placed to offer support to such an agenda.
However, the precise reason for this independence, Brexit, is something Biden is perceived to be concerned about. Democrats have already warned the UK that the Northern Irish peace agreement cannot be a ‘casualty’ of Brexit. The Democrats take the US’s role as guarantor of the agreement seriously so a priority for the UK government must be to allay these concerns as part of its departure from the EU.
In terms of the UK publishing industry, the importance of the US market cannot be overstated. UK publishing is an export driven market, with over half the industry’s turnover coming from export sales in 2019. The US is the largest single-country market for all UK print and digital book exports and in 2019, there were double digit increases in fiction sales to the US. In the same year, overseas sales from learned journals were worth £1.8bn, with North America accounting for £722m.
At the Publishers Association we have been working closely with the government to articulate what the UK publishing industry needs from a US-UK trade deal. Top of the list is ensuring that our strong IP provisions are not diminished in any way at the request of US tech. Officials have told us that the UK’s gold standard IP provisions will be protected, and a deal will only be agreed if it reflects the UK’s high standards across the board, but it is critical that we keep a close eye on what happens next.
Although there is a way to go before we see trade terms agreed between the two sides, this is a historic moment that must receive the attention it deserves.
Stephen Lotinga is c.e.o. of the Publishers Association.