The UK and the United States are embarking on talks to forge an "ambitious" post-Brexit free trade deal on Tuesday, after negotiations were postponed earlier in the year due to coronavirus pandemic concerns.
The talks will be opened via a video conference call between Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, and Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative.
This week we will commence negotiations on a free trade agreement with our friends and allies the USA 🇬🇧🇺🇲.— Liz Truss (@trussliz) May 3, 2020
We will be working to bring benefits to all parts of 🇬🇧 and boost our economies during #coronavirus recovery.
Some 100 negotiators will be involved in talks on both sides as the first round is set to last around two weeks and cover trade in goods and services, digital trade, two-way investment and support for small and medium-sized businesses.
Subsequently, approximately every six weeks remote rounds of talks will be held until the situation around COVID-19 allows for safe travel.
Talks will be led at official level by Oliver Griffiths of the UK Department for International Trade and Daniel Mullaney, the assistant US trade representative for Europe and the Middle East.
When questioned regarding how long the process might take, Downing Street was cited as saying both sides seek as quick progress as possible.
A ‘Hard Bargain’
Ahead of the first session, Truss said a deal would help both countries' economies to "bounce back" after the coronavirus crisis.
"We want to strike an ambitious deal that opens up new opportunities for our businesses, brings in more investment and creates better jobs for people across the whole of the country… The Prime Minister has been clear that we champion free trade and this deal will make it even easier to do business with our friends across the pond."
The International Trade Secretary echoed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s earlier pledge to “drive a hard bargain” in negotiations with Washington, as the UK will seek to lower tariffs on exports and boost trade in services.
"As we sit down at the negotiating table today be assured that we will drive a hard bargain to secure a deal that benefits individuals and businesses in every region and nation of the UK."
In a government press release at the start of March Boris Johnson sought to allay fears that disagreements between London and Washington could undermine the launch of talks, and addressed concerns among the British electorate that the US would seek access to the National Health Service (NHS). As he underscored that the government remains committed to keeping the health service universal and free at the point of use, Johnson said:
“Trading Scottish smoked salmon for Stetson hats, we will deliver lower prices and more choice for our shoppers. Most importantly, this transatlantic trade deal will reflect the unique closeness of our two great nations.”
The US accounted for nearly 19 percent of all UK exports in 2018 and 11 percent of imports.
Boris Johnson has long argued that a free trade deal with the US was one of the “prizes” to be gained post-Brexit.
In an 180-page document detailing the UK's objectives in March, ministers set out hopes for lower trade barriers for British car manufacturers, ceramics makers and producers of products such as cheddar cheese, while vowing to maintain consumer and environmental standards.
Downing Street has also reiterated that the National Health Service would be “off the table”.
However, Washington is aiming to secure more access to UK markets for its farmers, which critics have warned will require Britain to accept looser US food and environmental standards.
A major sticking point has been the UK ban on imports of chicken washed in chlorine and other disinfectants.
Currently, EU rules limit US exports of certain food products, including chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-boosted beef.
However, a Downing Street spokeswoman was quoted by the BBC as saying:
"We have always been very clear that we will not lower our food standards as part of a future trading agreement."
Another point of conflict between London and the UK has been Boris Johnson’s decision to grant China’s Huawei access to the UK’s 5G system.
In February, Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff warned of “a direct and dramatic impact” was possible on the sharing of intelligence between the US and UK if Boris Johnson’s government goes ahead with allowing the Huawei equipment to be used in building the British 5G mobile phone network.
Britain’s spy agencies have insisted any alleged surveillance risk from Huawei, which Washington has used as an argument to press its case, can be contained, and that they are familiar with the Chinese company’s technology, used in both 3G and 4G networks.
As US President Donald Trump congratulated Boris Johnson on his victory in the UK general election in December 2019, he had lauded the win as an opportunity for a "massive" trade deal between the two countries.
Trump had tweeted that any post-Brexit trade deal between them would be "more lucrative than any deal that could be made" with the EU.
Congratulations to Boris Johnson on his great WIN! Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a massive new Trade Deal after BREXIT. This deal has the potential to be far bigger and more lucrative than any deal that could be made with the E.U. Celebrate Boris!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2019
Although Donald Trump has often underscored he hopes to negotiate a swift deal, experts claim typically international trade agreements require years to complete.
The UK government has estimated that lower goods tariffs on such exports to the US as cars, ceramics, food and drinks, as well as a trade package on services, among other things, could help boost the economy by between 0.07 percent and 0.16 percent over the next five years, depending on the exact terms of the agreement.
Those wary of Brexit have been warning that better trade terms with Washington would not go far towards compensating for a more “economically distant” relationship with the EU, with whom the UK is in the process of hammering out a new trading relationship after its exit from the bloc on 31 January.