British lawmakers voted on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement Tuesday and, as expected, rejected it decisively — 391 votes against and 242 in favor. The focus now shifts to another vote in Parliament tomorrow, this time on whether to stop Britain from leaving the European Union, as scheduled on March 29, without an exit deal.
The prospect of a "no-deal Brexit" has caused widespread alarm among British businesses, and not just because tariffs between Britain and the EU, its largest export market, would increase. Many British companies are also worried about a government plan, in a no-deal Brexit scenario, to cut most United Kingdom import tariffs to zero percent in order to give a boost to consumers and to companies importing raw materials.
The British ceramics industry is particularly concerned. At her headquarters in Stoke-on-Trent, the town where the British pottery business was born more than 300 years ago, Laura Cohen of the British Ceramic Confederation spelled out the threat facing her industry.
"This would be a double whammy," she said. "Our members would not only face the burden of 12 percent tariffs on their exports to continental Europe. They would also have to deal with a flood of cheap imports. The 12 percent tariff on an Indian or Brazilian dinner plate coming into Britain would be cut to zero percent. Our home market would be inundated," Cohen said.
At his factory in the nearby market town of Stone, Alan Smith of Dunoon, a mug maker, told Britain’s Channel 4 News of his anxieties.
"I do fear for the ceramics industry," Smith said. "We’ve got people that have been working here for a long time, they’ve developed skills. Once these skills have gone, we’ve lost control. A whole industry could be decimated. When people voted to leave the European Union, I’m sure they didn’t want to see the decline of a whole industry."
Ironically, a majority of voters in Stoke-on-Trent voted for Brexit, among them, local councillor Dan Jellyman. Jellyman said he had no regrets about voting to leave the EU.
"No, no. I still think it’s the right thing to do," he told Marketplace. "The ceramics industry was not built on just exports to Europe. It was built on exports to the entire globe, and that’s where we need to be aiming at."
The ceramics industry, which contracted sharply in the second half of the 20th century, is long past its heyday. Jellyman wants to see the industry regain more of its former exporting glory and believes that Brexit will help. After exiting the bloc, Britain would be in a position to strike its own free-trade deals with countries like, for example, the United States, where British tableware currently faces tariffs of up to 28 percent. Jellyman is not worried by the prospect of zero percent tariffs on imports into the U.K. He believes that British potters will be able to compete with foreign producers.
But Cohen of the British Ceramic Confederation claimed that zero percent import tariffs would make the Brexiteers’ free-trade nirvana much more difficult to attain.
"It weakens our hand in making trade deals with other countries. If we give away access for free, why would anyone need to do a trade deal with us?” she asked.
Because the British Parliament is expected to block a no-deal Brexit in tomorrow’s vote, the proposed import tariff cuts seem unlikely to happen. But British manufacturers, and not just ceramics companies, are concerned enough about the tariffs' potential impact to keep clamoring for the government to rule them out.
“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VABEFORE YOU GO