U.K. international trade minister Greg Hands said it would be a “disaster to go back to protectionism,” and that the U.K. positioned itself as “the biggest advocate of global free trade.”
The United Kingdom’s international trade minister on Wednesday sought to reassure the Seattle technology community that even as Britain prepares to leave the European Union it remains a steadfast champion of free commerce and a strategic locale for U.S. tech titans.
Speaking to a roundtable of tech entrepreneurs at the headquarters of prominent venture-capital firm Madrona Venture Group, Greg Hands said that it would be a “disaster to go back to protectionism,” and that the U.K. positioned itself as “the biggest advocate of global free trade.”
The comments come amid widening concern about the state of the liberal world order, a worry especially relevant in Washington state, where corporate giants have built empires on the relatively free flow of goods, money and, to a lesser extent, people across the globe.
Economic stagnation in many parts of the developed world helped erode the consensus on globalization that became dominant after the fall of the Soviet bloc, and has given rise to populist and nationalist movements.
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Hands also spoke before a meeting Friday between U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and President Trump, who put the White House on a platform highly skeptical of globalization. Earlier this week, Trump moved to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he has designs to redraw the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
The leaders are expected to sow the seeds of a trade deal that could give the U.K. an important tether as it negotiates its way out of the European Union.
The American-born Hands has an interesting role in the environment the U.K. has found itself in since the British voted last year to leave the EU: that of crafting trade deals with other powers, a task that for decades was in the hands of Brussels. He said that the recovery of that sovereignty would make the U.K. even more open to the rest of the world.
For many U.S. companies, however, the U.K. has long served as a familiar, well-situated beachhead into the much larger European market, from where they can quickly deploy executives, products and financial transactions. The so-called Brexit poses plenty of uncertainties to these multinational firms, particularly around regulatory issues and the mobility of their personnel.
Hands, who also met on Wednesday with top brass at Amazon.com, Starbucks and Boeing, said the U.K. would seek to remain on good terms with the EU and maintain “maximum access” to the European market after its departure.
He also said the U.K. expected to reach an agreement quickly to guarantee the status of the 3 million EU nationals residing in Britain, as well as the 2 million British citizens living on the Continent.
Madrona partner Hope Cochran said Hands’ visit shows that the U.K. “is working hard to pave the way forward” by opening direct lines of communication to the international business community.
“There are still a lot of questions to work through,” but Hands’ department is approaching them with openness, Cochran said. The U.K. “has historically been a great jumping-off point for U.S. companies expanding into Europe and the minister communicated that he intends to keep it that way.”
Hands’ pro-free trade comments should address some of the concerns illustrated by a recent online presentation by Owen Larter, a manager in Microsoft’s U.K. government-affairs team, in which he said that new import taxes could cause the company to pull back on its investments in data centers in the country.
Large tariffs on servers, many of which are assembled in China and the Eastern Europe, “might change our investment decisions and perhaps we build out our data centers across other European countries,” he said in the presentation, spotted by the TechRepublic news site and since taken offline.
Larter also said Microsoft was pushing to make it easier to bring workers into the U.K., and was concerned that a break between the U.K. and EU could mean more complicated rules for data privacy.
Microsoft subsequently issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to its growing U.K. data-center footprint, saying Larter’s comments were not reflective of the company’s views.
Hands said he supported free flow of data across borders with safeguards for privacy.
Britain will be bound by the coming EU data-privacy regime, called the General Data Protection Regulation, from the time those rules phase in next year until the split London negotiates with Brussels.
Speaking generally about the new U.K. approach to regulation compared with the EU, Hands said he “would be very surprised if we went off wholesale in a different direction.”