Since the first Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 1860, a lot has happened. A solid 160 years will do that for you. On the FTA front specifically, the focus has also shifted: what used to be an opportunity for significant duty reduction and, therefore, a more competitive position in the FTA partner’s home market has turned into a tool for faster access to the market and control of a trading relationship. With the applied, weighted, mean duty rates globally down to 2.59% from 8.57% in 1994 (Source: macrotrends.net based on World Trade Organization (WTO) data), the importance of duty rate reduction has been marginalized—so why is there still such a strong movement towards adding more FTAs to an already considerable total worldwide?

Some Recent Developments

Trade agreements are not only about duty rates anymore; the collaboration and facilitation part is just as, if not more, important. That means trading partners make efforts to reduce the paperwork on the trade lane, give priority to incoming shipments, and collaborate on data exchange and simplification of procedures. In today’s economies, these elements are just as crucial as a few duty points. In addition to the facilitation, environmental clauses are included in new FTAs. Got to start somewhere. Customs unions (like the EU) take it one step further—they usually allow for goods to move freely between member states and have a single common tariff for the outside world.

In a similar fashion, the FTA accounts for financial and administrative arrangements that are not limited to duty rates and import documents. In a broader scope, abolishing of export subsidies, transparency with added value calculations, investigative cooperations, etc. are part of the package and simplify the use and verification of FTA claims.

Perhaps not a trend (yet?), but the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean is loosening its Rules of Origin (likely in effect in 2021). Rules of Origin set forth the requirements that need to be met to benefit from FTA arrangements (i.e., qualify for preferential treatment). Typically, Rules of Origin encompass a required tariff shift (i.e., a substantial transformation needs to take place) and/or a value-added component (i.e., the value add of locally sourced parts, materials, labor, etc. needs to exceed a specific threshold). The value-added thresholds have historically been relatively high (60% and up) and loosening those requirements will simply allow more products to qualify, which will give developing countries especially more opportunities to qualify their exports for preferential treatment.

Per the WTO, over 300 Regional Trade Agreements (RTA) are currently in force. This number only reflects agreements that include preferential duty rate schemes, as agreements such as bilateral investment treaties or Joint Commissions would increase this number two- or three-fold. The RTA number includes bilateral/local agreements as well as ‘monster trade pacts’ such as the EU, USMCA or ASEAN – China agreements. It has been a steady growth of FTAs since the 1990s, with a peak in the action between 2003 and 2011. And (see below) there is no end in sight.

What’s Next?

Go big or go home is what the EU is thinking. Agreements are in place with around 40 countries, ratification in progress for agreements with around 30 countries, and agreements with another 20 countries are waiting to be signed. For any countries left behind, it seems that there are ongoing negotiations (e.g., Australia, New Zealand) or plans to negotiate. Don’t despair.

Never-ending speculation on a Trans Atlantic agreement (US – EU) or a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) including the US will not be put to rest until actually completed and in force (the US withdrew from the TPP in 2017). The US currently has 14 FTAs with 20 countries, re-did the USMCA in 2020, and negotiations with Kenya and Taiwan seem to be in the works.

Lastly, with Brexit in its final stages, the UK is also breaking off FTA relationships with EU partners. That means the UK will have to create separate FTAs with these countries. Practically, not all of the EU FTAs will have a UK equivalent by January 1, 2021, and some may never be in place. This means regular (Most Favored Nations – MFN) rates will apply come January 1 unless another preferential program (like the Generalized System of Preferences) applies. But with the UK exit comes an opportunity for Britain to conclude agreements the EU has not been able to pull off. Perhaps a US – UK FTA is nearer than thought. Let’s check the odds on that!

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Anne van de Heetkamp is VP of Product Management and Global Trade Content at Descartes and is an international trade expert with 20+ years of industry experience. Previously he served as Director for global trade compliance/management company, TradeBeam.



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