Frictionless trade. It’s an expression that we’re likely to hear a lot over the coming weeks and months as Brexit talks between the UK and the European Union progress from discussions on the broad principles of the divorce settlement through to the minutiae of unpicking and reassembling 40 years worth of multilateral trade agreements in treaties.

The UK is leaving the European Union but British negotiators must surely be hoping for a deal that ensures a continuation of frictionless trade with the 27 member states.

Sources of Friction

And inevitably, the Brexit talks will raise questions about the mechanics of frictionless trade. Both inside the EU and as part of any post-Brexit settlement.

In simple terms, a frictionless market is one where there are zero or minimal cost attached to trading – in other words, there are no tariffs impacting on the movement of goods across borders and, equally importantly, no customs checks to slow things down. Or to put it another way. Shipping goods from London to Paris should be no different to sending the same package internally within, say, France or the UK.

Language – the forgotten lubricant

But there are other important components. One often forgotten lubricant of frictionless trade is acceptance of at least one common working language For instance, in a market of 28 – soon to be 27 – member states, then it is crucial that the multiplicity of languages spoken across the trading area do not act as any kind of a drag on the movement of goods.

That’s where working languages come into play. Let’s take the example of a truck travelling from, say, the Czech Republic through Germany, France and then the UK – and probably making pick ups and drop offs along the way. It’s a journey that will involve a number of border crossings and the documentation on board must be understandable to officials in all the relevant jurisdictions. So in theory, that could mean documentation being available in perhaps four or five languages, depending on the journey or the load.

In practice it makes much more sense to complete the necessary forms and information sheets in a commonly understood working language. This simplifies the documentation process and in doing so, reduces the cost of doing business internationally. English is well established as the de facto language of trade.

The Brexit Winds of Change

But the UK’s vote to leave the European Union may have an impact on the status of English as a working language.

As things stand, there are currently three EU working languages, namely English, French and German. Within the EU’s institutions, they are used to streamline administration. For instance, preparatory documents for MEPs and civil servants are published in the three working languages rather than the 23 official languages. The assumption is that an EU official will understand at least one of the working languages. And as the EU has expanded eastwards, English has become the most popular second language. For instance, figures published by the European Parliament in 2014, showed that in parliamentary debates, English was used most often in debates, followed by German and French.

But crucially, the status of English has been called into question. The UK is the only EU country to name English its official language. Post Brexit, there is no guarantee that English will remain an official or a working language.

A Drag on Trade

And any diminution of the status of English has the potential to act as a drag on trade. In today’s EU, German and French are not so widely spoken as English. A slow phasing out of English would, therefore, add to translation costs and – perhaps less tangibly – make the process of moving goods across several international borders more complex. Frictionless trade would, thus, involve a bit more friction.

As the Brexit talks proceed, it’s a factor that EU officials and negotiators on both sides should consider. Frictionless trade needs a common language and when you step back from the politics surrounding Brexit to see the bigger picture, English is the prime contender.

You can find out more by downloading our whitepaper on the subject, The English Language in Post-Brexit Europe – Implications for Cross-Border Commerce.