Fox Fights EU Attempts to Limit U.K. Trade Powers Before Brexit

  • U.K. official says EU can’t lock Britain out of trade talks
  • Britain now has ‘greater freedom’ to talk with non-EU nations

Liam Fox.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The U.K. is battling to stop the European Union blocking Prime Minister Theresa May’s drive to forge new trade partnerships as the country prepares for Brexit.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is challenging the attempt to lock the U.K. out of the bloc’s ongoing trade talks. He’s also opposing efforts to limit Britain’s power to negotiate commercial accords with other countries before Britain leaves the EU.

EU officials are reportedly pushing for the U.K. to be cut out of sensitive discussions because they are worried confidential information on trade deals would help May’s team negotiate favorable terms with the same countries after Brexit. At the same time, Britain has been warned it can’t line up its own free-trade agreements with non-EU nations until it has formally left the bloc in 2019.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Fox hit back on both points. He insisted he has “certainly got greater freedom” to hold trade talks with other countries now that May has formally triggered the Brexit process. And he declared Britain cannot be kept out of the EU’s internal trade discussions while still a member of the bloc.

“We are a full partner in the EU until we leave and intend to play our full role,” Fox said. “Clearly when the EU is discussing the U.K., that’s a matter for the 27 and not the U.K. but we intend to exercise our full legal rights as one of the 28 members until such time as we stop being a member.”

Flash Point

The question of third-country trade deals is a new flash point, with the EU and U.K. already at odds over the structure of the upcoming talks and the size of any exit bill. Such rows have sparked fears that the U.K. and EU won’t reach an amicable divorce settlement and agree new terms for future trade in the tight, two-year window available for talks.

The European Commission warned last month there would need to be “a discussion about the treatment of sensitive information in the context of certain trade negotiations, which the U.K. would continue to have access to while it remained a full member,” the Financial Times reported.

EU officials are concerned that by participating in conversations about talks with countries such as Australia, the U.K. might glean confidential information it can use itself when it tries to win post-Brexit accords.

In the interview, Fox said Britain wanted its own deal with Australia and would not give up its right to see the EU’s private trade plans. “We think that the U.K. is a key liberalizing influence, and certainly from discussions I’ve had other countries welcome us continuing to play that role right until we leave the EU itself,” he said.

Now that Article 50 has been triggered, and Britain is clearly on the legal exit path, there is no reason not to start talks with other countries about future trade agreements, he added.
“We’ve certainly got greater freedom now that we are in the process of leaving,” he said.

“Obviously we can’t sign any agreements while we are still members legally of the European Union but we can certainly begin to talk about what we want.”

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