Ministers have identified at least ten different countries as a ‘priority’ for trade negotiations after Brexit, despite serious concerns about Whitehall’s ability to process talks with so many different governments.
Research by the Open Britain campaign has found that, since Theresa May’s Government came to power, Ministers have described trade talks with Australia, Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States as being priorities.
Apparently, both the United States and New Zealand are at the “front of the queue”, Brazil is at “the top of the list”, and Canada and Mexico are both “top priority.” Ministers will also “prioritise” trade deals with Switzerland and South Korea, and expect talks to start “almost immediately” with Hong Kong and “shortly” with India.
This is despite the Department for International Trade being only a year old; has only just managed to hire a chief trade negotiation adviser; and has spent over a million pounds on recruitment consultants without much success in hiring trade negotiators.
Experts at the Institute for Government have said that “one of the main risks for DIT is that it initiates a large number of simultaneous negotiations, then finds itself unable to progress any of them effectively.”
Commenting, Peter Kyle MP, leading supporter of Open Britain, said:
“If there’s one thing we know how to do in Britain, it’s form an orderly queue but not Ministers, who seem to think everyone can be at the front.
“When we have not negotiated a free trade agreement for forty years, it seems very optimistic to think Whitehall can take them ten at a time.
“Biting off more than we can chew could lead to substandard deals which undermine British standards and we end up choking on chlorinated chicken.
“Worse still, the Department for International Trade is refusing to do what the Treasury is asking and provide any evidence that these new deals will even make up for the economic loss caused by leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.
“The Government’s real priority should be protecting trade with our biggest economic partner – the European Union, which can only be done by being a member of the Single Market and Customs Union.”
Notes to editors:
Australia: “Talks with businesses and government on boosting trade between us when we leave the EU will also be at the top of agenda.” Boris Johnson, 25 July 2017. http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/832823/boris-johnson-australia-brexit-trade-deal-new-zealand
Brazil: “We will also look to secure FTAs with countries around the world. I hope Brazil will be at the top of the list.” Lord Price, 5 August 2016.
Canada: “The European Union currently has 36 free trade agreements with other countries around the world. Ensuring that there is no disruption of our free trade with Canada, or any other partner, is a top priority for my department.” Liam Fox, 26 January 2017.https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/liam-fox-speech-to-the-toronto-board-of-trade
Hong Kong: “As Britain’s exit from the European Union moves forward, it is vital that our new, closer trading relationship with Hong Kong is firmly established. It is already a tariff free or low tariff zone and we can use those relationships already established by our close commercial and political ties to take a pro-active approach to removing any remaining barriers to trade. Together, we will engage in a continuous dialogue to identify those impediments that still exist. In this way, we can quickly and easily identify the ‘low-hanging fruit’ - those barriers which can be removed easily on a case-by-case basis to our mutual advantage. This will allow us to begin, almost immediately, the work of establishing our re-invigorated trading relationship.” Liam Fox, 5 January 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/liam-foxs-speech-to-the-british-chambers-of-commerce-hong-kong
India: “I think the time is fast upon us when we need to turbo charge this relationship with a new free trade deal, such as we will shortly be able to do.” Boris Johnson, 18 January 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-uk-britain-india-trade-deal-freedom-of-movement-delhi-boris-johnson-a7534026.html
Mexico: “Ensuring that there is no disruption of our free trade with Mexico, or any other partner, is a top priority for my Department.” Mark Garnier, 14 February 2017. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/mark-garnier-speech-to-the-british-chamber-of-commerce-in-mexico
New Zealand: “I can certainly tell you that New Zealand is at or near the very front of the queue … We are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe of course, and we are going to do we hope a great free trade deal with New Zealand.” Boris Johnson, 24 July 2017. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/07/24/reuters-america-nz-at-or-near-front-of-queue-for-trade-deal-uks-boris-johnson.html
South Korea: “EU-Korea and EU-Switzerland, account for about 80% or so of the trade by value—others are much smaller countries in terms of trade value—and they are clearly the ones that we would prioritise.” Liam Fox, 1 February 2017. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/international-trade-committee/uk-trade-options-beyond-2019/oral/46903.html
Switzerland: “EU-Korea and EU-Switzerland, account for about 80% or so of the trade by value—others are much smaller countries in terms of trade value—and they are clearly the ones that we would prioritise.” Liam Fox, 1 February 2017. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/international-trade-committee/uk-trade-options-beyond-2019/oral/46903.html
United States: “The United States of America will be in the front of the queue.” Boris Johnson, 14 July 2016.
In June, it was reported that the DIT had hired the New Zealander, Crawford Falconer as its chief trade negotiation adviser:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/06/16/uk-hires-top-new-zealand-trade-negotiator-head-post-brexit-deals/
In July, it was reported that Treasury officials had challenged the DIT to prove it can line up free-trade agreements that can outweigh the loss of European trade: https://www.ft.com/content/46926410-5ffb-11e7-91a7-502f7ee26895
In August, it was reported that the DIT had spent £1.15m on recruitment consultants while only confirming one senior appointment and refusing to say how many officials with “substantial experience” have been hired: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/headhunter-splurge-fails-to-deliver-brexit-negotiators-liam-fox-department-of-international-trade-jonathan-fried-crawford-falconer-jeremy-heywood-mvdbtd300
The Institute for Government report, ‘Taking back control of trade policy’, published in May 2017, is here:https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/taking-back-control-trade-policy