COVID-19’s impact on the global economy remains severe. Restrictions introduced here and across the world will mean companies again having to adapt how they do business.
And while these measures have rightly been implemented for public health reasons in response to the pandemic’s second wave, they weigh heavy on the mind of many firms, particularly those who export internationally.
The long-term effect of COVID-19 on trade has been much debated. Will we eventually return to a global, largely open market, or will localised purchasing habits witnessed earlier this year be replicated on a national level and become the ‘new normal’?
And if that does happen, what does it mean for Scotland and its globally integrated economy?
Respected economists and academics have expressed concern about some countries adopting a more protectionist outlook to trade.
But such a response would display a short-termism that limits any efforts to rebuild the global economy. COVID-19 knows no borders, so neither should our economic response to it.
That’s why Scottish Enterprise remains committed to the internationalisation of Scotland’s economy. Supporting our companies to export their products and services across the world is critical to this.
COVID-19’s impact on international exports over the past seven months cannot be ignored.
Figures show many businesses are exporting less compared to the previous year. Intelligence we’ve gained from companies echoes this, with reduced demand from overseas apparent.
Transport restrictions, including the cancellation of commercial flights and increased cost of air freight, has made exporting more challenging.
The end of the transition period with the EU at the turn of the year and the uncertainty over a trade deal will also add to the challenges.
So, we recognise that these are tough times. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Scotland’s products and services continue to have a worldwide reputation for their quality, and international awareness of “Brand Scotland” continues to be strong.
New international export opportunities will emerge, and we need to grasp these with both hands. And that’s why Scottish Enterprise has been working hard on a Trade Recovery Plan.
This strategy will provide support to companies looking to do business overseas and focus on connecting our businesses with the best of those global opportunities.
As per the Scottish Government’s A Trading Nation strategy, we’ve reinforced our focus on supporting exporters whose growth can disproportionately benefit our export performance and the economy.
And we will continue, along with partners, to provide advice, support and signposting services through our digital channels for companies at an earlier stage of their export journey.
We will laser-focus on the best export opportunities by market and sector. Our international networks – such as GlobalScots, a diaspora group of business leaders across the world – will provide vital insight and intelligence that will allow us to deliver targeted promotional activity.
Strong emphasis will be placed on assisting companies develop their digital and e-commerce capabilities to help them export and sell in new ways. There has been an exponential growth in these channels, and we need to ensure our businesses are ready to take advantage of these opportunities.
Alongside this, we will be enhancing our suite of existing digital products and services and redesigning these to ensure companies can access them as smoothly as possible.
Due to travel restrictions, we’ve hosted many online events this year as we continue to promote international trade opportunities for Scottish companies.
Whether it was highlighting Scotland’s skills in green hydrogen to an audience in Germany, encouraging our healthcare companies to consider exporting their products to the US or showcasing opportunities for our food and drink companies in Spain, these engagements have been successful and will form a key part of our future outreach strategy.
With so much activity underway, we need a simple, clear and bold message that talks about Scotland as a natural choice for doing business.
Scottish Enterprise’s new Think campaign – part of the award-winning Scotland Is Now campaign – does exactly that: proudly emphasising our successes, our strengths and our values, while talking about practical solutions for businesses to grow and to innovate.
In line with the Scottish Government’s trade and investment plans, the digital campaign focuses on the priority areas where Scotland can stand out from its competitors.
Think will help put Scotland on the radar of potential buyers, highlighting the quality of our products and services that so many consumers across the globe already enjoy.
Pre-COVID 19, our international exports had increased by more than 60% over the past 11 years. In January, Export Scotland Statistics revealed that Scotland’s international exports (excluding oil and gas) increased by £1.1bn (3.4%) to £33.8bn in 2018.
The Advisory Group on Economic Recovery’s report earlier this year recommended Scotland “should not be shy about taking its place in the world” when it comes to trade and investment. We agree.
Now is not the time to retreat and look inward.
International trade will be essential to Scotland’s long-term economic recovery.
And Scottish Enterprise stands ready to do what we can to support the global aspirations of our companies in these most unique of times.
Neil Francis, director of Global Trade at Scottish Enterprise