An article in the Telegraph this morning declares, “US ready to negotiate free trade deal with UK ‘as soon as’ Britain quits the EU, says Trump envoy”. This, of course, has nothing to do with the timing of May having to come to terms with the EU on the Irish backstop question this very day. I would never suggest such a thing, obvs.
The bun fight that emerges is predictable: Best for Britain, the anti-Brexit group, are quoted in the same Telegraph article as saying a US-UK trade deal “could be a disaster for the UK and shred our animal welfare and consumer protections”. This is the wrong angle for Remainers to take on this; the much more valid questions are whether such a deal with the US is any way achievable, and even if it is, how far into the future such a deal would be ratified and then finally, how damaging to UK business such a deal might be.
Let’s look at what there is on the subject even within a Telegraph article trying desperately to talk this possibility up.
Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (so, the head honcho on this sort of thing for America), is quoted in the article as having written to the US Congress to say he is “pleased to notify Congress that the President intends to initiate negotiations on a trade agreement with the United Kingdom. We intend to initiate negotiations with the United Kingdom as soon as it is ready after it exits from the European Union on March 29, 2019.”
Okay, again, understanding how the US conducts free trade deals is everything here. The US intends to initiate negotiations with the UK once it has left the EU and although it doesn’t say so explicitly in the Telegraph article, is out of all customs arrangements with the EU. So, not March 29, 2019, but whenever the transition ends. This is because the US will need to understand what the UK’s relationship with the EU post-negotiation will be in exact terms and cannot begin to negotiate until it knows.
But let’s say for argument’s sake that there is a no deal Brexit, so this particular complicating factor is missing. The UK begins to negotiate a trade deal with the US in April 2019. On average, a trade deal with the US takes 18 months to negotiate and then three and a half years to implement. The US, as I have said on multiple occasions, negotiates trade deals as the superior partner in every possible sense. They do not do the idea of negotiating with equals. This is one of the things that has made the US-EU trade deal drag out so long – the US just don’t see it as a meeting of partners with equal heft and weight, but as the usual subordinate crew who should be happy to take whatever the Americans are willing to give.
If the Americans were not willing to see the entirety of the EU, including the UK, as equals to them, it is laughable and embarrassing to suggest they would extend this courtesy to the UK alone. And having been bruised from the EU not treating the UK as equals in this current round of negotiations, it seems like the UK is just headed towards a repeat of the same with the US – only a much harsher version thereof.
The Brexiteers have talked up things like Brits getting freedom of movement within the United States. This is a joke – there is a zero percent chance of this happening. The US won’t extend this to Canada, a country it shares the world’s longest border and has the deepest trade relationship with, a country with a higher GDP per capita than the UK, and a country not thought to contain highly undesirable and dangerous Islamic fundamentalists, as the US state department fairly or unfairly characterises Great Britain. The US will seek to negotiate a deal that allows American businesses a chance to sell cheap stuff in the UK, undercutting many UK business sectors. You can argue from a free market fundamentalist view that is fair play – but you can’t then hide from the fact that it will be bad for a lot of UK businesses and particularly, the UK agricultural sector.
I’ll conclude by saying this: argue Brexit is necessary from a sovereignty perspective if you must. Just don’t go around telling people their kids are get to move to New York on a whim or that the deal will be highly advantageous to UK business. That is, and I’ll stress this again, even if the UK doesn’t wear out US negotiators patience before a deal is signed (highly likely) or that the UK agrees in the end to a lopsided deal after many, many years of negotiation. It won’t be easy or pretty, even it is achievable, which is highly questionable.