LONDON — The UK does not have the “capacity” to strike international free trade deals and has had to turn down countries who wish to sign one, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has admitted.
Speaking to Politico, Fox said that there are a “number” of countries who want to sign an agreement with the UK, but the UK is “simply unable” to make it work.
Fox also said that he had told countries with existing EU trade deals that the UK wished to copy these treaties, and then update them when possible.
He said: “There are a number of countries who said they would like to move directly to a new free-trade agreement but we have said we are simply unable to do that at the moment.
“It requires the willingness of the country involved to want to move the process further on and it’s dependent on our own capacity in our own department.”
According to Fox, his first priority is signing a trade deal with the US after Brexit, and then agreements with Australia and New Zealand, although he admitted that this could not happen until a deal has been signed with the EU.
He said a deal with the US was “already moving” and “Australia and New Zealand [are] our next highest priorities because they are very keen to establish open markets and they are more like us in terms of the markets that they are.”
The international trade secretary maintained that the UK would eventually sign its own trade deals with countries around the world after leaving the EU.
He said: “The EU has got some 40 free-trade agreements with third countries. We have always said that our aim is twofold — first of all, to provide continuity as we leave the EU but then to move to more bespoke and more liberal agreements when we are able to do so.”
“Cut and paste” Brexit
This follows Prime Minister Theresa May signing an agreement in Japan last week that committed to a “new economic partnership” based on the economic partnership agreement (EPA) between the EU and Japan.
Attacked as a “cut and paste” Brexit by opponents, the government believes that the copycat deals will secure continuity and confidence after the UK’s exit, but it is also a sign of Whitehall’s lack of resources to be able to sign deals with as many as 40 countries.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said that it “defied all logic.” He said: “Far from bagging lots of new trade deals, the government is simply trying to cut and paste our existing arrangements. Its Brexit strategy has just reached new levels of absurdity.”
Labour MP Darren Jones, a leading supporter of Open Britain told the Guardian: “The promise of new trade deals with countries around the world is starting to look like yet another broken Brexit promise. Given we have not negotiated a single trade deal for forty years, it’s hardly surprising that the government lacks the capacity to take on 50 at a time.”
“Ministers should focus on our most important trade deal — the one with the European Union — and ensure that half of all our trade remains truly free by seeking to negotiate for continued British membership of the single market and customs union.”
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