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2 August 2017

Donald Trump has shown why a US trade deal would be so difficult for Britain

The US president struggles to sustain interest in trade, but when he does, he's demanding access to agriculture and the NHS. 

By George Eaton

As before, Donald Trump has promised “a major trade deal” with the UK. But it’s the rest of the US president’s interview with the Wall Street Journal (the full transcript of which was leaked to Politico) that should trouble the Brexiteers. 

Though Trump struggles to progress beyond platitudes, he declares that he wants an “all-in” trade deal, including agriculture and services. He complains that the “protectionist” EU hinders US farmers, seemingly unaware that any deal with Britain faces the same obstacles. The prospect of chlorine-washed chicken entering the UK has already split the cabinet (with Environment Secretary Michael Gove vowing to block it)  and hormone-injected beef and acid-washed pork would likely fare no better. Were Britain to adopt US standards, it would undermine continued trade with the EU: there is no cost-free option. 

That furore is minor, however, compared to the rows that would result if the US demands protections for its multinationals and access to the NHS. Britain’s inexperience of trade negotiations (the preserve of Europe for 44 years) and its large trade surplus with the US mean it starts from a position of unambiguous weakness. 

Even if Trump is determined to strike a deal, he faces political constraints of his own. New trade deals require Congressional approval and legislators must be given extensive notice at each stage of the process. Successful trade agreements require patience, attention to detail and persistence – qualities in which Trump is notably lacking.

Asked whether he can provide more details of a future deal, the US president initially replies “no” before a bizarre segue into the decline of “Britain” (“You don’t hear the word Britain anymore. It’s very interesting. It’s like, nope.”) and Scottish golf (“One little thing, what would they do with the British Open if they ever got out?”) 

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During the interview, the Wall Street Journal remarks: “The one thing is there’s a ticking clock with Brexit”. But where trade is concerned, the problem is less a shortage of time than an excess. Until the UK leaves the EU, it cannot commence formal negotiations with the US, a restriction that would likely persist during a two or three-year transition period. By that time, Trump may well have left the White House (or simply lost interest), another factor that gives his words limited worth. 

As Justice Secretary David Lidington has stated, a deal with the US would not compensate for the damage that would result from a hard Brexit (and comes with costs of its own). In trade, geography matters (the EU accounts for 44 per cent of British exports). The UK’s economic future depends far more on the agreement it reaches with Europe than that it may never strike with the US. 

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