In September, the UK government gave the green light for the construction of the Hinkley Point power plant through a French-Chinese consortium. The project—which has received wide international attention after being very nearly relegated to the protectionist dustbin—has been agreed to after much hemming and hawing. It has been mired in controversy mainly over security concerns related to foreign ownership, viewed by some as smacking of protectionism.
It is no secret that there has been a worrying trend toward protectionism in the global markets. The appetite for international trade agreements and foreign investment has been consistently listless. In the United States, and globally, some politicians have been banking on this by flaunting protectionist rhetoric in an effort to garner support. But while protectionism may win votes in the short-term, domestic economic growth will lose out in the long-term. Ultimately, politicizing the global economic rut will only make matters worse.
A Global Trade Alert by the independent London-based think-tank, the Centre for Economic Policy Research, shows that between January 1 and October 31 2015 a total of 539 governmental measures adopted worldwide “harmed foreign traders, investors, workers, or owners of intellectual property” followed by a sobering observation that “in no previous year have we found so many trade distortions so quickly.”
According to the study, the three countries subjected most often to foreign protectionism have been China, the European Union and the United States, in order of ranking. Settling in to this new protectionist normal, however, will have dire economic consequences for all countries and not just developed ones.
Protectionism and an over-reliance on quantitative easing (QE) measures are key contributing factors toward the “new mediocre” which has set hold of the global economy. In this “new mediocre”, global growth is stuck at barely 3 percent a year, with the United States, the European Union, and Japan as the poorest performers. Relying on QE as a long-term solution as opposed to a short-term “fix” following the Financial Crisis of 2008 has had a hampering effect, lengthening rather than stemming the impact of the Financial Crisis – especially for countries that combined QE with austerity measures. Likewise, governments are exacerbating the situation by raising roadblocks on trade and investment opportunities.
The global economic outlook and mood has been gloomy. However the passage of the Hinkley Point deal, once security concerns were addressed, offers a light at the end of this clogged-up tunnel. In the post-Brexit world, the UK government’s decisions on investment and trade will come up against the current popular sentiment towards protectionism. The Hinkley Point deal bucks this protectionist trend, possibly signaling a shift in attitudes towards trade and investment.
Prime Minister May has announced that she would like to turn Britain into a “global leader in free trade,” even though barriers against doing so are going up. In the United States, both presidential candidates seem to be putting up the barriers themselves, shunning trade and investment opportunities and riding the wave of popular protectionist rhetoric instead. President Obama, in a new piece penned for The Economist, instead argues that trade helped the U.S. economy much more than hurt it. There is a choice, he continues: “retreat into old, closed-off economies or press forward, acknowledging the inequality that can come with globalization while committing ourselves to making the global economy work better for all people.”
Regardless of who takes office in the White House come January 2017, economic growth should not be held up or held back by congressional impasse or politicized protectionism. Jump-starting the global economy will require less reliance on federally enacted economic measures and more restraint from protectionist and nationalist tendencies instead. Only then can domestic and global economies stand the best chance of awakening from this prolonged slumber of stagnation.