LONDON — Chancellor Philip Hammond has poured water on the idea that Britain will be able to start formally negotiating any international trade agreements before Brexit is completed.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday morning ahead of a summit with other EU finance ministers, Hammond emphasised that Britain is still committed to the EU until it actually leaves, and will abide by EU rules until it does. That means no trade negotiations with other nations.
“Britain remains a fully engaged member of the European Union,” Hammond said.
“We will continue to abide by the rules and the regulations and the laws of the European Union as long as we are members. Of course we want to strengthen our trade ties with the very many trade partners we have around the world, but we’re very mindful of our obligations under the treaty, and we will follow them precisely.”
The comments effectively rule out Britain starting any actual negotiations with countries like the USA and Australia until at least 2019, adding a further layer of complexity to Brexit proceedings.
Under current EU treaties, Britain can neither strike nor even begin to negotiate any trade agreement with countries outside of the Union until it has formally terminated its membership, which is expected to occur in March 2019.
This was made clear by the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini, who recently used a meeting with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and his European counterparts to issue a stern reminder to Britain.
“It’s absolutely clear on the EU side that as long as a country is a member state of the EU, which is something the UK is at the moment, there are no negotiations bilaterally on any trade agreement with third parties. This is in the treaties and this is valid for all member states as long as they remain member states, until the very last day.
“This is in the treaties and this is valid for all member states as long as they remain member states, until the very last day,” Mogherini told media after the meeting.
This is an obligation that EU leaders have made clear to the UK on numerous occasions in the past, but until now warnings issued from Brussels did not appear to have deterred the government. Hammond’s comments suggest that the government has begun to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Earlier in January, trade minister Liam Fox claimed that Britain has already held “informal trade negotiations” with a dozen countries all over the world as part of the government’s recently announced plan for a new “global Britain.”
Fox said that government officials have started discussions with “China, India, Australia and South Korea as well as Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia and Oman,” and adds that the “also conducting initial trade deal discussions with Norway, New Zealand and the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council is a union of Middle Eastern nations including the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
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