British exports have hit a record high amid booming demand beyond the sclerotic European Union, official figures show.
In a sign that Brexit has not held back trade, UK companies sold £689billion of goods and services overseas last year, up 5 per cent on 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Goods exports were up 6.4 per cent to around £372billion as a 0.9 per cent fall in sales to the EU was more than offset by a 13.6 per cent rise to the rest of the world.
Exports up: UK companies sold £689bn of goods and services overseas last year, up 5 per cent on 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics
China is now Britain’s third largest export market behind the US and Germany having leapfrogged France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
The reports was seized on by ministers as Brexit negotiations about Britain’s future relationship with the EU get under way.
The Government wants a trade deal with the EU while also seeking to use the UK’s new-found freedom from Brussels rules to sign a string of agreements with countries around the world including the US.
Trade secretary Liz Truss said: ‘The UK is an exporting superpower and these new statistics show that UK companies are exporting record levels of goods and services.
As a newly independent trading nation, we will strike new trade deals with key partners across the world, open up new markets and make it even easier for our businesses to meet global demand.’
Britain is becoming less reliant on the EU for trade, according to the ONS report.
While British firms sold £170.6billion of goods to EU countries in 2019, exports to the rest of the world hit £201.5billion.
That meant non-EU countries accounted for a record 54 per cent of exports last year, up from 40 per cent at the turn of the century.
Pablo Shah, senior economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said the surge in exports last year may have saved the UK from recession.
But striking a cautious tone, he added: ‘This exposes significant underlying weakness, and suggests that a slowdown in international trade or in the economies of major export partners could well pull the rug out from under the feet of the UK economy.’
A major source of concern is the impact of the coronavirus on China where the death toll has topped 1,000. Exports of UK goods to China rose by more than 40 per cent last year to over £26billion.
With the Chinese economy set to slow sharply as the spread of the virus forces factories, shops and other firms to close their doors, it is feared that demand will not be as strong this year.
Overall, Britain ran a trade deficit of £29.3billion last year, as £718.3billion of imports outweighed £689billion of exports.
There was a goods trade deficit of £129.6billion and a trade in services surplus of £100.3billion.
Cars were the biggest goods export, though the value fell 4.5 per cent to £31.6billion amid a shift from diesel engines to greener alternatives.
Among the fastest growing exports were fish and shellfish, rising 13.1 per cent to £2.1billion.
Economy has ‘turned a corner’
Britain was the fastest growing major economy in Europe last year despite grinding to a halt in the final quarter, official figures show.
With the Budget due on March 11, the Office for National Statistics’ latest health check underlined a need for the Government to kick-start growth.
But it also revealed that Britain’s GDP expanded by 1.4 per cent in 2019 despite being weighed down by uncertainty over Brexit.
The economy also demonstrated signs of life following Boris Johnson’s election victory in December, with growth picking up in the final few weeks of the year.
According to the ONS, gross domestic product expanded by 0.3 per cent in December, after contracting by the same amount in November.
Analysts Capital Economics said the figures suggest the economy has ‘turned a corner’.
Chancellor Sajid Javid, who is expected to unveil tax cuts and higher public spending said: ‘We’ve broken the deadlock and left the EU – now we need to seize this moment to level up and prepare our great nation for long-term success.
‘In my Budget I’ll set out how we will move forward, with more ambition and new thinking.’