Britain must seize the opportunity for an historic new kind of trade deal with the USA

Britain must seize the opportunity for an historic new kind of trade deal with the USA

A few weeks ago, I went to Washington DC to talk about trade. As a UK politician going to the US in the run up to Brexit, I was welcomed. My team and I had all kinds of productive discussions with officials and policymakers.

It was good to break through some of the myths around the Trump presidency vis-à-vis trade. Here at home, we need to do the same for Brexit – especially over our trade deal prospects. Just as with Trump, there are real issues to confront. But no one is helped by obscuring the case for optimism or ignoring longstanding problems with the status quo.

When it comes to the UK’s future trade deals, the future is brighter than many claim. And what we have now is far worse than they admit.

I am on the international trade committee for the European Parliament. I was rapporteur on the EU-Singapore agreement. And I’ve been a trade and investment geek since I began studying this vital subject back in the late 1980s – and went on to teach it in the 1990s.

For over a decade now I’ve had a front row seat on how the “sausage” of EU trade deals gets made. It’s not a pretty sight. We talked a lot about big trade deals like CETA, Doha and TTIP. We signed some agreements, such as the Economic Partnership Agreements with developing countries. But after ten years, I have seen precisely one major bilateral trade agreement enter into force. That was South Korea in 2015.

The trade agreement with Singapore that I helped get signed? Delayed and re-opened by the EU. Unsurprisingly, the Singaporeans are unimpressed.

Brexit gives us a chance to change all that. And where better to start reaching out to the wider world than America?

The United States is our single biggest export destination, accounting for almost a fifth of Britain’s exports in 2015. In the same year it was also our second-biggest import partner in goods and services after Germany, accounting for more than 10 per cent of all our imports.

Of course, our trade with the nations of the EU taken together remains substantial. But as we enter a new era of post-Brexit bilateral deals, the US presents one huge opportunity.

And fortune is on our side. Because I heard two things in Washington. I heard the expected caginess of negotiators unwilling to commit themselves before the UK’s position becomes clearer. But I also heard an appetite for a new kind of deal.

Remember, Britain and America will not be coming to the table just as established trading partners, strong allies and cultural and legal cousins. We have President Trump’s wish to see Brexit succeed. And we know his administration is looking to begin its own new era of bilateral trade deals.

What better place for America to start than a historic deal with a newly-independent United Kingdom? Especially as our similar levels of economic development mean that we are not going to suck jobs or companies away from the US.

Most people don’t realise this, but trade deals are largely based upon established templates. Often trade negotiators will insist on a measure being included in a trade agreement, even though it may not be contentious to either party, but simply because it will be used as part of a template for future trade agreements with other countries.

A fast, fair deal between the UK and US, with so much in common, could provide the new template that both of us need. That then can pave the way for more deals on the same lines with other pro-UK countries – or anyone else among our global trading partners who is open to a free but fair deal. We can at last make our own agreement with Singapore – one that doesn’t have to be walked back to the table five minutes later.

There are challenges ahead. All sides will have to face tough questions as the world’s trading relationships get renewed.

I have been told by more than one minister of a non-EU country that without the UK, doing a deal with the EU may be less attractive to them. I hope not. As a free trader, I hope to see both the UK and the EU continue to sign more trade agreements. Moreover, the US, EU and the UK will somehow need to make common cause if they are not convinced that China should be granted “market economy” status at the World Trade Organisation. But as one official asked me, can you honestly say that France or some other EU countries should be considered as “market economies”?!

The US with its preference for the “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) mechanism and the EU having moved onto promoting its modified “investment court system” (ICS) may be heading for a dispute over the rival systems they respectively favour to deal with state-company disputes. And the US-EU Privacy Shield will need revisiting in the light of Brexit and any actions Trump may take on US surveillance law. There is a lot to talk about.

But overcoming such problems is what negotiation is for. The UK has a huge opportunity to renew the special relationship by sealing a new kind of trade agreement. We must be ready to seize the day.