UK and U.S. free trade negotiations underway

The UK and U.S. governments launched formal negotiations on a free trade agreement on Tuesday, vowing to work quickly to seal a deal that could counter the massive drag of the coronavirus pandemic on trade flows and the two allies’ economies.

The talks, taking place by video link, will involve over 300 U.S. and UK staff and officials in nearly 30 negotiating groups, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and UK trade minister Liz Truss said in a joint statement.

“We will undertake negotiations at an accelerated pace and have committed the resources necessary to progress at a fast pace,” they said.

“A Free Trade Agreement would contribute to the long-term health of our economies, which is vitally important as we recover from the challenges posed by COVID19,” the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The talks mark Washington’s first major new trade negotiations this year, and come as the U.S. experiences a record drop in exports and the first contraction in the service sector in over a decade.

British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters it was “a very good sign of confidence in economic recovery” that the two countries were moving ahead with the talks.

For both countries, the talks, whilst they failed to reach this point more slowly than many hoped, are in fact extremely timely.

Both countries are seeking, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, to shift supply chains away from China, and Washington is seeking free access to UK markets. Lighthizer said that the pandemic “has shown that depending purely on cheap imports for strategic products can make us vulnerable in times of crisis”.

London is also been working out trade terms with Brussels following its exit from the bloc in January, at a time when the EU is seen as being in a perilous state, both economically and politically.

London’s goal was to expeditiously complete both negotiations and there could be a positive dynamic between them, even though they are being headed by different lead negotiators, Reuters reports one UK official as saying.

The two are at odds over tariffs, including steel and aluminium duties imposed by Washington in 2018, and London is anxious for the U.S. and the EU to resolve a dispute over aircraft subsidies that has resulted in tit-for-tat tariffs which affect Scotland's important whisky sector.

Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, another big critic of tariffs, said he hopes a strong agreement with the UK lays the groundwork for an improved trade deal with the EU, which has so far resisted U.S. demands for increased agriculture access.

“If we get a good deal with the UK on agriculture, it’s going to embarrass Europe,” Grassley told reporters on a conference call.

Image: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

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