The UK’s International Trade Minister, Liam Fox, has rebuked likely new Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his plans to agree a fast-track UK-US trade deal with Donald Trump, warning that this would break EU law.
“We can’t negotiate anything with the U.S. until after we’ve left the European Union,” Fox told BBC’s Today programme. “It would be in breach of European law for us to do that.”
The UK is legally forbidden from conducting negotiations on new trade agreements while it is still a member of the EU.
Johnson, who is likely to be announced next Tuesday (23 July) as the victor of the Conservative party’s leadership contest to replace Theresa May, has suggested that the UK will be able to announce the first part of a trade deal with the United States as soon as it formally leaves the EU after 31 October.
The Tory front-runner has prioritised trade and political relations with the Trump administration after Brexit.
Johnson was subjected to criticism after failing to defend Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s ambassador to the US, who was forced to resign after Trump responded angrily to a series of leaked memos in which the UK diplomat described the US administration as ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’.
Johnson has also suggested that any UK-US trade pact would have to see the US agree to keep to the UK’s agricultural standards, the same stance as the EU.
“I don’t want us to do any deal with the US which in any way jeopardises our animal welfare standards or our food hygiene standards. The quality of food in this country must be protected and if anything, we should be insisting that if the Americans want to trade with us, they should be obeying our standards,” he told a campaign event last week.
Controversy over food standards was one of the main factors in sinking talks between the EU and Washington on a comprehensive trade pact.
Johnson has promised to renegotiate parts of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, with particular focus on the Irish backstop, but with the option of leaving the bloc on No Deal terms after 31 October should EU negotiators, led by Michel Barnier, refuse to budge.
Fox also warned that the status of the American political cycle, with mid-term Congressional and Gubernatorial elections next autumn, meant that it was unlikely that a UK-US trade pact could enter into force any time soon.
“We’re now getting very close to the American pre-election year where it is quite hard to get things through Congress. So even if you negotiate them quickly, you would not necessarily be able to ratify them,” he said.
Johnson, or his leadership rival, Jeremy Hunt, is likely to face a race to agree the rollover of EU trade deals with third countries before the end of October to avoid trade disruption.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]