How UK’s Post-Brexit Trade Deals Hit A Brick Wall – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

EU-UK trade talks resume this week amid growing optimism about a deal, but the UK’s wider Brexit trade strategy remains hampered, and Japan is the only major economy with which an agreement may be imminent.

While Brexiteers play down these problems, it is undeniable that less progress has been made than was promised before and since the 2016 referendum.  Former trade secretary Liam Fox  told cheering Conservatives members at the party’s 2017 autumn conference: “We’re going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the EU so we’ve got no disruption of trade.” But seven months after the UK finally left the EU, Fox’s promise remains unfulfilled, and Boris Johnson’s government has been able to sign few of the 40 free trade deals Fox faithfully promised for “the second after” EU withdrawal.

To be sure, there appear to be more successes on the horizon, perhaps including a trade deal with Japan; but it will closely align with the one the EU itself recently negotiated with Tokyo, which calls into question why the UK left the EU in the first place.

Japan aside, other British allies have criticised the lack of progress in talks over trade deals, and said the UK government was not “match-fit” for negotiations. Those were the words of New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who said London was still s not ready to properly engage in talks, with and that he was “very frustrated.”

Peters warned of a risk of over-stretch, with the UK government negotiating several deals at the same time. Healso said London sometimes appeared not to know what it wanted from its negotiations, giving the upper hand to countries that do. 

While the UK has formidable strengths as a nation, what this situation underlines is how much some Brexiteers were excessively optimistic; talk of Britain unlocking a new era of global trade in the 2020s, including swift negotiation of favorable trade deals with a broad array of countries, has been muted by the reality of the UK’s bargaining power in a world shaped by global economic superpowers. The US and China, the world’s largest economies, are two good examples of the challenges the UK faces. Both are key priorities for Johnson’s team to secure trade deals.

It is clear that both Donald Trump and Johnson see a post-Brexit trade deal as the cornerstone of a renewed “special relationship.”  However, as much as both sides may ultimately want an agreement, London has abandoned hopes of clinching one ahead of the presidential election given the political pressures that come with it.  Trade Secretary Liz Truss criticised the Trump team for talking “a good game” on free trade while restricting import access, and she will be aware that Democrat Joe Biden, if elected in November, would prioritise a US free trade deal with the larger EU market before the UK.

To be sure, there are key areas ripe for US-UK agreement, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods.  Equally, however, potential icebergs lie on the horizon, whether Trump or Biden wins, including agriculture where there are divergences of views and strong interest groups.  

Complicated as a trade deal may prove between two allies, it may be a cakewalk compared with China. The relationship between Beijing and London is in the deep freeze following Johnson’s U-turn over using Huawei 5G technology, disagreements over Hong Kong, and UK concerns over China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.  

Indeed, relations could become even frostier than during the period after David Cameron gravely offended Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012. London quickly reversed tack after this, and Conservative governments subsequently ratcheted down, in public at least, human rights concerns about China with relations entering what was called a “golden era” after President Xi Jinping’s UK visit in 2015.

That, however, is a bygone age, despite many in the UK believing that the relationship could make a significant contribution to UK prosperity for a generation. For now at least, the government has decided that its growing political concerns over China will trump its financial relationship with what may be the world’s largest economy in the next decade.  

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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