Thinking smaller: Why Tunisian olives hold the key to the UK’s post-Brexit trading success

On reaching the Americas in 1519, Hernán Cortés burnt his ships. Pointing up the beach he told his astonished crew that, since retreating to Europe was no longer an option, the only way was forward to the possibilities he anticipated in the New World.

Britain now stands on the brink of its Cortés moment. When Article 50 is triggered there will be no way back. Brexit Britain’s success will hinge not on the European union but on our ability to trade freely in markets worldwide, including small ones.

They’re harvesting olives in Tunisia right now. Gorgeous they are; rich greens and blacks, mostly organic. But the label on my bottle of Waitrose extra virgin olive oil says it’s a blend of EU origin. Brussels quotas are restricting consumer choice and requiring retailers to boast about the EU’s insulation from emerging markets in its near abroad.

Following the Sousse and Bardo terrorist attacks, the Tunisian economy has relied heavily on the export of olives and olive oil. But despite some temporary post-Sousse concessions by Brussels, Tunisia can’t freely export into the EU. Southern European farmers have made sure of that.

Too much of Tunisia’s quota of olive exports is as unfinished oil, leaving plenty of profit for European – mainly Italian – bottlers and marketing operations in a lucrative cartel. So a potentially fragile state in Europe’s backyard is being undermined by EU diktat. Meanwhile, European consumers pay more than they should for groceries while sending big EU cheques to shore up Tunisia. Where’s the sense in that?

Now, competitively priced olive oil won’t energise the post-Brexit UK economy, but bilaterals with dozens of small to middling countries like Tunisia are key to Britain’s commercial reawakening. Success is a thousand small deals with small companies in small countries.

The capacity of government and its emissaries to land contracts in big mature markets is finite but its involvement can easily be a deal clincher in smaller, centralised economies whose captains often seek the assurance that goes with the state’s imprimatur.

At this most crucial juncture, the government’s adherents must be out there doing trade with small countries. Trade must be a standing item on every ministerial agenda. No crevice of government, from Home Office to Health, Defence to Education and Justice is off the hook.

We have to engage the world’s markets with all the souk’s verve and vigour or allow the prophets of doom their day.

North African olives on supermarket shelves will tell us if we’re on track.

Dr Andrew Murrison MP is the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Morocco and Tunisia.

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