United Kingdom

UK's plan to lobby for free global trade outside the EU

Britain is set to launch a big push for free trade around the world, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Sources said Britain's first independent trade policy since 1973 – due to come into force in January – would involve lobbying for low tariffs and greater powers for the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Although Britain left the European Union on January 31, it is still bound by most of its rules until December 31. After this, the Government can fully pursue a completely independent trade policy.

The UK is determined to press ahead with trade liberalisation and to restore the powers of the Geneva-based WTO to punish countries that defy trade agreements

It plans to use its year-long presidency of the Group of Seven (G7) advanced nations to try to break down obstacles to freer commerce around the globe.

The UK will also push to give the WTO back its legal teeth with which to inflict painful punishment on countries that break trading rules.

And officials will strive to work with a loose coalition of like-minded states, such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, to turn back a tide of protectionism that started after the financial crisis in 2008.

This has gained momentum since the coronavirus pandemic was blamed by some on international supply chains.

'This is a top priority for the PM,' said one Whitehall source, referring to Boris Johnson's commitment to the free flow of goods and services, and his appointment of an ardent free-trader, Liz Truss, as International Trade Secretary. 

Since Britain joined the European Community 47 years ago, both trade policy and the negotiation of agreements with the outside world have been the exclusive province of Brussels officials.

By coincidence, Britain assumes the G7 presidency in January. The coronavirus outbreak has also meant that the next summit of WTO trade ministers has been moved from this year to next. This gives Britain a chance to use its G7 platform to push the organisation in the direction it wants it to go.

The UK is determined to press ahead with trade liberalisation and to restore the powers of the Geneva-based WTO to punish countries that defy trade agreements. 

President Donald Trump has accused the organisation of taking a soft stance on China and has been blocking appointments to the WTO's Appellate Body – in effect its court of law. Denied the judges it needs, the court is currently turning away new cases and dealing only with the existing backlog.

The EU and others have proposed an alternative court that would exclude the US. However, the UK would prefer to get the existing body back on its feet.

Britain's ambassador to the WTO, Julian Braithwaite, has seen his trade team in Geneva increase four-fold since the Brexit vote in 2016. 

He and his colleagues at the Department for International Trade (DIT) in London are determined that the replacement for outgoing WTO director-general Roberto Azevedo from Brazil should be a tough champion of global trade and adherence to the rules.

Asked about the likely direction of the country's trade policy once it is fully back under national control, the DIT said: 'At the heart of the UK's independent trade policy is a commitment to free, fair, rules-based trade.

'Coronavirus has shown us the importance of keeping trade flowing and building diverse supply chains that are robust in a crisis.'

A key objective of British Ministers, even during the decades in which the UK effectively outsourced trade policy to the EU, has been to liberalise cross-frontier trade in services.

While full trade-policy independence must await January 1, the British mission to the WTO has already taken a symbolic step.

Braithwaite previously sat with other EU ambassadors in the WTO council chamber and could only observe Europe's trade commissioner while he addressed the organisation. He has now moved to the other side of the room, where he sits in his own right, close to the US ambassador.

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