Besides being important in themselves, the trade talks between Britain and the United States which began this week are symbolic of the opportunities that should become available as we leave the European Union. For years we have dealt with the US, our biggest single customer, under burdensome tariffs and other regulation — but we had no choice. The EU handled trade policy and it never succeeded in completing a trade deal with any of its major trade partners. Britain, by contrast, has always been more global than Europe in its outlook. The vote for Brexit was, among other things, a vote to raise our sights to more distant horizons.
At the time of the referendum, a bilateral trade deal with the US looked unlikely for political reasons. Barack Obama notoriously declared that Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’. But the mood in Washington has changed, and a trade agreement with Britain is now in the political interests of the President, who has said he is looking forward to a ‘major’ deal, as well as of the Republicans in Congress, led by Paul Ryan. Trade deals are easier to strike when there are just two countries in the talks, which is why Switzerland on its own has managed to establish agreements with Japan and China.
The tragedy of the EU is that a good number of its members, especially the northern ones, are open to the idea of more trade. The EU sought to do a deal with the US through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but struggled to satisfy 28 countries plus the various lobbies with a direct influence on Brussels. The EU’s announcement of a ‘trade deal’ with Japan earlier this month turned out to be a piece of political window-dressing.