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Brexit, Trump and the future of free trade

2016 was a terrible year for free trade. Possibly the worst on record.

In June 2016, UK voters opted to leave the European Union, where 44 percent, or £240 billion, worth of UK exports are currently sent tariff-free. And in November 2016, Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency, in part by attacking the forces of globalization, which he claimed had enriched elites but left millions of American workers in poverty.

To help further analyze the watershed year for free trade, we sat down with an expert panel, which included:

Reuters Editor at Large Axel Threlfall moderated the panel and asked members to weigh in on key trade issues and trends such as:

  • How much was Brexit or the Trump presidency caused by resentment toward free trade?
  • Are the proposed 219 percent “Bombardier” tariffs threatened by the U.S. the shape of the future?
  • Is the President of China now the world’s leading advocate for free trade?
  • Will free trade exist in 10 years’ time, or is protectionism the way of the future?

The group also considered the benefits of free trade over the last 60 years, and what part the UK rejection of EU membership relied on decades of trade liberalization.

And as U.S. trade policy continues to be in the global spotlight, the conversation turned to the election of President Trump, who scrapped the Trans-Pacific Partnership within days of assuming his office and has threatened to dramatically alter NAFTA; a move that represents a seismic break for the US. The last time a candidate won the U.S. Presidency advocating protectionism was 1928, when Herbert Hoover promised to increase tariffs of agricultural products for farmers in the Depression. As other nations retaliated in response, world trade declined drastically — 66 percent between 1929 and 1934.

Finally, they speculated on what could feature in “NAFTA 2.0” or in a free trade agreement between the UK and the remaining European Union.

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