UK has ‘no capacity’ for quick new trade deals with smaller countries
Trade minister Greg Hands says post-Brexit focus must be on big agreements
Britain does not have the resources to start negotiating new trade deals across the world once the country leaves the EU, the UK’s trade minister has warned, saying the government will instead carry over many existing EU agreements.
As Theresa May visited Canada to prepare the ground for a post-Brexit trade deal, her trade minister Greg Hands said the UK only had capacity to focus on major trade agreements after it leaves the EU in 18 months’ time.Speaking in Pakistan, where he announced that the UK would indefinitely adopt the same terms as the EU-Pakistan trade agreement, Mr Hands said his main priority was to avoid leaving businesses suddenly with no trade protections.
“We have 12 trade working groups with 17 countries,” he said. “We have a resource consideration. We have grown the international trade department from 50 to 325 people and we need to make sure the resources are put into markets that will be truly sizeable enough for a free-trade agreement.”His comments contrast with the optimism of many Brexit campaigners who are keen to sign more favourable trade deals with countries outside the bloc, especially in the Commonwealth.
Last week, Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary, argued: “We will be able to get on and do free-trade deals, to campaign for free trade that has lifted billions out of poverty, which so badly needs a new champion.“We will be able to intensify old friendships around the world, not least with fast-growing Commonwealth economies, and to build a truly Global Britain.
”While Mr Hands said he did want to sign improved trade deals with several countries after Brexit, he said his priority was ensuring there was no “cliff edge” for companies that would leave them without trade protections in the short term. “We need to marshal our resources intelligently,” he said. “We will make lives easier for ourselves by transitioning over existing trade agreements. That avoids a cliff edge for business.
On Monday, Mrs May said in Ottawa that in the short term the UK would adopt the same terms as Canada recently signed with the EU, which took seven years to negotiate.Many who argued for a Leave vote are particularly keen for the UK to focus on the fast-growing economies of south Asia, such as India and Pakistan, with their historical ties to Britain.
Early signals, however, have suggested these might be harder to negotiate than some imagine. India, for example, has recently cancelled a raft of investment treaties with EU countries, including the UK, as it pushes for better terms. New Delhi wants the UK to ease its visa restrictions on Indians in return for entering trade talks, something Mrs May is reluctant to do.
Mr Hands was speaking during a three-day trade mission to Pakistan, the world’s sixth-biggest country, whose economy is growing at about 5 per cent a year. He said the UK would not push for free trade talks with Islamabad, choosing instead to roll over the terms of the current EU agreement.“We are open to expanding the scope of our trade arrangements in the future, although it is too early to say when that might be,” said Mr Hands. “We need to remain focused on the most important things first.”