Britains all-you-can-eat approach to global trade

LONDON — When it comes to trade deals, Britains eyes might prove to be bigger than its stomach.

For the first time in more than 40 years, the U.K. will take its seat alone at the trade negotiating table — and it is immediately preparing to tuck into several meals at once.

Even before launching talks on future trade terms with the EU, Britain is already mapping out its framework for deals with countries such as the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand. On Thursday, Trade Secretary Liz Truss will set out the U.K.s negotiating approach toward the U.S. and other nations — making clear that it will protect the National Health Service as well as food and environmental standards, among other things.

This multipronged approach to trade talks raises the prospect of complex geopolitical games of triangulation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that Britains global reach will give him leverage, as the EU increasingly frets that the U.K. will become a free-wheeling Singapore on its border, closely bound to the U.S. and Asia. Brussels wants to use its trade negotiations with Britain as a way of locking the U.K. into its regulatory framework, and Johnson is out to show that there are alternative economic models on the menu.

“In any case, our negotiating partners will probably want to have clarity on the future U.K.-EU relationship before they move ahead” — David Tinline, former adviser to WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo

Johnsons main problem, however, is that officials from many global trade heavyweights in the Americas and Asia point out that there is little point in closing a deal with the U.K., despite its rich consumer market, until it is clear what the future relationship with the EU will be. Asian investors will want to know, for example, whether they can manufacture cars and machines in Britain and then export them tariff-free to the EU27.

David Tinline, a former adviser to WTO Director General Roberto Azevêdo, said tackling multiple and complex negotiations at once in a bid for leverage “could well backfire” on the U.K. He added, “In any case, our negotiating partners will probably want to have clarity on the future U.K.-EU relationship before they move ahead.”

One minister insisted the rush for other trade deals was a genuine bid to open markets to Britain, regardless of whether the move puts pressure on Brussels, and that other nations were not holding back. “We are negotiating with other countries because they want to strike trade deals with us quickly,” the minister said. “The largest economy in the world is keen as mustard.”

As a member of the EU, Britain effectively outsourced its trade policy to Brussels. Thanks to EU negotiations, Britain has been part of tariff-slashing deals with countries such as South Korea, Japan and Canada. It will now need to renegotiate these, but without the muscle of the worlds biggest trade bloc — and its 450 million consumers — behind it.

When the country voted to quit the EU in 2016, the government realized it would have to get wise. It set up a new Department for International Trade (DIT) and began stuffing it with experts who could help steer the ship into the trade world beyond. It now has more staff than the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the minister said.

British Trade Secretary Liz Truss | Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Consultations on the U.S. and Australasian deals, as well as a call for thoughts on joining a big Pacific deal, drew more than 600,000 responses from business, trade experts and members of the public in 2018. The government also ran a consultation about a potential FTA with Japan between September and November 2019.

The new regime

Meanwhile, the government has been inviting experts into Whitehall for regular meetings about what trade deals could look like. Those are split into two tiers.

The so-called Strategic Trade Advisory Group (STAG) is a high-level meeting chaired by a trade minister and includes representatives from cross-industry business groups, trades unions and academia.

Beneath the STAG are a number of Expert Trade Advisory Groups (ETAGs), which focus on specific areas such as food and intellectual property, and meet more regularly with officials from the relevant government departments.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has also pledged to meet business and interest groups more frequently. He held a roundtable with industry at the end of January and is planning another in February.

“There is some real engagement going on around the trade deals,” said Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, who has been involved in various consultation meetings with the government. “I expect industry will be listened to. It would be foolish in the extreme not to because we understand the consequences of specific negotiating decisions in a way that they cant.”

The U.K. has no obligation to inform or consult parliament in its trade negotiations, and parliament has no right to debate or vote on treaties.

Another industry representative agreed that the government does appear genuine in its efforts to reach out. But they said ministers had not been clear how industry would be able to give its feedback between negotiating stages.

When it comes to the trade structure in Whitehall, the objectives for non-EU deals are discussed between the Cabinet Office and DIT in two sub-committees that include ministers and officials, according to the National Audit Office. There are also a number of cross-government groups that bring in other departments and consider how well equipped the government is for negotiations.

An overarching Trade Policy Group in DIT, which looks at opening up overseas markets, has more than 600 staff members and a multimillion-pound budget. There are also groups focusing on specific country deals, which take input from other departments as well, and groups focusinRead More – Source