US officials involved in exploratory talks with the UK about a post-Brexit trade deal share Donald Trump's bleak assessment of the chances of it happening and doubt that it's really a priority for Theresa May's government, according to three trade specialists who are familiar with their thinking.
Trump’s claim last week that May’s new approach to Brexit will “kill” a potential transatlantic trade agreement is shared by US officials who’ve been tasked with smoothing the way for formal negotiations, the trade experts said.
The president’s explosive remarks to the Sun newspaper – which overshadowed last week’s working visit and undermined May at a moment of heightened political danger for her fragile government – reflected a deeper frustration within the Trump administration about Britain’s approach to a potential trade agreement.
While ministers in May’s government insist that a US trade deal is a high priority after Brexit, a year of exploratory bilateral meetings have left American officials confounded as to what Britain wants from such an agreement. Some believe the UK isn’t really serious about doing a deal in the near future and that their time is being wasted, the trade specialists said.
“The general feeling is that the UK has been wasting their time to help manage domestic Brexit politics,” one of the trade experts told BuzzFeed News.
“They’re getting pretty bored,” said another.
The UK’s Department for International Trade, led by trade secretary Liam Fox, has identified a trade deal with the US as its top priority for when Britain leaves the European Union. For many Brexit supporters, a transatlantic trade deal is the ultimate reward for pursuing an independent trade policy – and essential for the UK to thrive economically outside the union.
Last July, the two countries established a working group to begin laying the groundwork. To date it has met four times, alternating between London and Washington, DC.
The latest meeting was in London last Tuesday and Wednesday, finishing the day before Trump arrived in Britain.
The Americans sent a large and “high-powered” delegation led by Daniel Mullaney, the US government’s senior trade representative in Europe and the Middle East. A nonpolitical appointee, Mullaney has worked for the US government since 1999. He was the chief US negotiator of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the now-defunct trade agreement between the EU and the US.
The US–UK working group has made modest progress in some areas, the trade specialists said. It has been working to ensure the continuity of commercial activity after Brexit by replicating the arrangements that are in place because of the UK’s membership of the EU. And both countries have committed to measures aimed at encouraging small businesses to export more to each other’s markets.
But on the working group’s main objective, to create a foundation for an ambitious future free-trade deal, progress has been frustratingly limited in the view of the US negotiators, they said.
By now, the Americans had hoped to have a clearer sense of the UK’s future relationship with the EU and how that would affect trade with the US, and to be discussing each other’s demands and red lines and how to accommodate them, the trade specialists said. Instead, the US officials have complained, the British have said little to enlighten them on those matters in their meetings.
“They think the UK is basically not taking this seriously, or doesn’t know what it’s doing,” said one of the sources.
The experts pointed to the terse press release issued by the US Trade Representative about the latest working group last week. It noted that the meeting took place and listed some of the topics discussed, but it did not claim that progress had been made and there were no quotes from politicians or senior officials celebrating the initiative, as is typical in government releases.
Within the UK’s trade department, views about how the talks are progressing are mixed, one of the sources said. Fox and other senior figures are enthusiastic about doing a deal with Washington and are determined to make it happen. At a lower level, however, some officials admit that the UK doesn’t have a clear plan, the source said.
The impasse reflects the reality of Britain’s political situation: that the government can’t negotiate its future relationship with other countries until it has determined its relationship with the EU and it is still hopelessly divided about that.
Even so, the trade specialists said, the Americans are losing patience with their British counterparts. This was so before the meeting at Chequers on 6 July, when the prime minister set out plans to keep the UK closely aligned to the EU after leaving the bloc, which the US officials believe is an obstacle to a US–UK agreement.
Trump has said he would like to do a free-trade deal with Britain “very very quickly” after it leaves the EU – in contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama, who warned that the UK would be “at the back of the queue” if it voted for Brexit.
Trump is genuinely keen to do a bilateral deal, the sources said, and sees the UK as a potentially useful ally in his trade war against the EU and China. However, the US will demand that the UK relax some of its regulatory barriers to make it easier for American companies to sell into the British market, which could harm trade with the EU and provoke domestic political controversy.
In his interview with the Sun, Trump said May's new strategy of remaining closely aligned to the European Union after leaving the bloc would probably "kill" the UK's chances of securing a sweeping trade deal with the US.
The interview, which was published just as Trump was attending a dinner hosted by May at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, was a huge blow to 10 Downing Street, which had hoped that Trump’s visit would emphasise the two countries’ commitment to a closer relationship after Brexit.
On Friday, after formal discussions with May at Chequers, Trump appeared to walk back his comments, saying he’d been persuaded that a trade deal was still possible despite May’s change of Brexit strategy.
“I believe after speaking with the prime minister’s people and representatives and trade experts it will absolutely be possible,” Trump said at the joint press conference.
May insisted her new Brexit approach – which she unveiled to cabinet ministers at Chequers a week earlier, prompting two to resign days later – won't prevent the UK doing trade deals with countries outside the EU. “The Chequers agreement reached last week provides the platform for Donald and me to agree an ambitious deal that works for both countries right across our economies,” the prime minister said.
“A deal that builds on the UK’s independent trade policy: reducing tariffs, delivering a gold-standard in financial services cooperation, and – as two of the world’s most advanced economies – seizing the opportunity of new technology.”
Asked for comment, the UK’s Department for International Trade and the US Trade Representative referred BuzzFeed News to the two leaders’ comments at the Friday press conference.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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