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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Lorand Bartels, Reader in International Law

Dr Lorand Bartels is Reader in International Law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge. He will be taking part in the panel discussion, Trade wars: deal or no deal on 20th October from 3.30-5pm at the Law Faculty.


Question: How much do you think the average person understands about how international trade works?

Lorand Bartels: Much more than two years ago! I think by now people - including MPs - understand that trade in the 21st century is largely about components that go into products, and also that a large part of trade is in services, which is to say activities between people and companies from different countries. In the UK, unlike in many other countries, people generally understand that competition in the marketplace - including from imports - is generally a good thing, provided that domestic policy objectives are not undermined.


Q: How can academics help to explain international trade in a climate characterised by distrust and by pronouncements from those who may oversimplify things for political gain?

LB: Academics are used to explaining complicated concepts in simple terms. Talking to the general public, and that again means people involved in politics, is not very different from teaching at university. Of course, you can’t guarantee that people won't misinterpret you, sometimes by mistake, sometimes not. I think every academic in public life learns quickly to be careful and precise about what they say.


Q: How much can trade experts add to a discussion which is essentially political?

LB: A lot. Trade has political dimensions, but there are objective facts - and best interpretations - that a trade expert can offer to the general public. In my field, there is a lot about how international and EU law work that is essentially factual. It is, however, important for academics to stick to what they know, and to avoid straying into policy debates in which they have no special expertise.


Q: In an era of incipient trade wars and shifting global alliances, what would the UK's best options be outside the customs union?

LB: It is precisely because of the risk of trade wars that an enforceable rules-based international trading system is ever more important. The UK should be a strong supporter of the WTO, and should seek enforceable agreements with its trading partners. Customs unions are the best way of eliminating customs duties as well as the need to check that products come from within the customs union (because all other products pay the same duty to enter the customs union).


Q: How long could any free trade agreements take post-Brexit?

LB: This is one of the most urgent questions. EU free trade agreements with other countries will cease to apply to the UK as of 29 March 2019 unless they are rolled over. That requires the agreement of all parties. The Department for International Trade has been working hard to make this happen, but the EU has said that it will not act until a Withdrawal Agreement is signed. This puts the UK in a very difficult and uncertain position.


Q: Will the transitional period be sufficient in your view?

LB: I think that a UK-EU FTA can be concluded in this period, given that it raises largely technical issues, rather than protectionist horse-trading, as is normal in FTAs. Whether there is capacity to run this along with everything else that needs to be negotiated in this period is another question. The short time frame will certainly concentrate minds.


Q: In your opinion, are enough students being trained in international trade law in the UK?

LB: Trade law is not a subject taught at undergraduate level; it is taught at LLM level. UK law students only rarely go on to study at LLM level. That means that there are not so many who are likely to be well trained in this field. On the other hand, it might inspire more UK students to do an LLM.