Ever since the EU Referendum was called, supporters of Brexit have claimed the pro-free trade argument as their own. The potential ability to craft trade deals on our own terms was a factor that motivated many Brexit campaigners. As a result, there is a risk that supporters of Remain are regarded as increasingly protectionist if only to differentiate themselves from their opponents. This, however, does not – and indeed should not – have to be the case.

We all know the benefits of free trade, and indeed the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Remainer-in-Chief, Vince Cable, got it spot on when, as business secretary, he described free trade as “vital” to the UK. He went on to say that it “spreads technology and good practice; it stimulates competition and rejuvenates economies… As trade is liberalised, not just British businesses, but businesses around the world, will benefit.”

Equally, we all understand the consequences of protectionism, and how in the end there are no winners, just many losers. If Remainers are to continue to fight Brexit, then these simple facts should not be lost along the way.

Instead, perhaps it is time that Remainers embraced the free trade argument and pointed to the benefits of membership of the European Union, or, at the very least of EFTA or EEA. The single market, after all, is perhaps the most comprehensive free trade deal ever to be struck. Indeed, just as the UK is set to depart, it appears as though the EU is finally getting its act together on free trade – a comprehensive trade agreement has just been signed with Japan, and further deals have been developed with the likes of Australia and New Zealand.

The newly forged deal with Japan demonstrates the EU’s willingness to regard free trade deals as the way forward for a future Europe. The head of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, claimed that the deal underlines the “win-win” aspects of embracing free trade.

He added that the “impact of [the] agreement goes far beyond our shores. Together we are making, by signing this agreement, a statement about the future of free and fair trade. We are showing that we are stronger and better off when we work together. And we are leading by example, showing that trade is about more than tariffs and barriers. It is about values, principles and finding win-win solutions for all those concerned.”

However, to some, this may appear like empty rhetoric – offering positive language but failing to demonstrate the economic benefits of such a free trade arrangement. 

In response to this, we should look at a similar arrangement between the EU and Canada struck in 2013. In these negotiations, an agreement was reached on the elements of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – the first free trade agreement between the EU and a G8 country. This deal removed 99% of tariffs between the two economies and created numerous new opportunities for investment. One economic study released by both the EU and Canada before the negotiations showed that this agreement could increase their bilateral trade by €25.7 billion. 

This is not to say that the EU in its current state is a free trade panacea – there is always more that could be done. The Common Agricultural Policy for example, which unfairly subsidises EU farmers – to the detriment of farmers in developing nations – should be reformed beyond recognition, if not scrapped altogether. Thankfully, there are voices within the EU who understand this. Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, has raised his concerns about grand plans for “ever closer union”, and instead called for the EU to get back to its original purpose: free trade.

Remainers must not fall into the trap of supporting protectionism. And regardless of which side of the Brexit debate they were on, politicians should continue to show support for the idea of free trade as a powerful tool for both prosperity and peace, home and abroad.

Written by Andy Briggs

Andy Briggs is a board member of Liberal Reform, a pressure group within the Liberal Democrats campaigning for social, personal, political and economic liberalism.