Theresa May wasted no time in preparing Britain for a Brexit as soon as she became prime minister.
In the first few hours of her premiership, she established a new governmental department called the Department for International Trade (DIT) to oversee the task of negotiating trade deals with dozens of non-EU states.
Liam Fox, who was selected to head the department, has already encountered a really big problem.
Britain’s civil service has a shortage of trade negotiators. In fact, it appears Whitehall is nowhere near equipped enough to deliver multiple trade deals.
Britain currently has between 12 and 20 officials “with direct knowledge of trade negotiations,” according to a parliamentary report cited by the Financial Times.
In comparison, Canada, which very recently finalised a free-trade agreement with the European Union, has 830. It took Canada seven years to negotiate the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).
Of course, there are many differences between Britain’s post-Brexit trade negotiations and Canada’s CETA negotiations.
But the fact that the size of Whitehall’s trade negotiating team is currently about a 1/50 of Canada’s highlights just how under-resourced the department is — especially given that David Davis, the minister in charge of overseeing Brexit, pledged Britain will formally leave the EU as soon as December 2o18.
The reason that Whitehall is so short on trade negotiators is because this aspect of policy had been outsourced to the European Union for the past four decades, according to FT, meaning the civil service had no real need for hundreds of negotiators.
The DIT is expected to begin negotiating international trade deals immediately. After all, if Britain is going to exit the 28-nation bloc by December 2018, this means Article 50 must be triggered in no later than five months time. Time is not on the government’s side.
But given the discrepancy between the magnitude of the task facing the department and the number of specialists it has to carry it out, it is unlikely that Britain will be able to secure trade deals at the required rate.
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