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4 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:02pm

Donald Trump or no Donald Trump, the UK and the US will never strike a trade deal

By Stephen Bush

The National Health Service will be on the table in any US-UK trade deal, Donald Trump has confirmed in his joint press conference with Theresa May.

Is that news? It confirms what anyone who had taken even the minimum amount of time to look at the two nations’ trade flows, political interests and general behaviour in trade talks already knew. The major barriers to trade in the 21st century are non-tariff barriers – that is, regulatory hurdles or caps that slow trade between nations – and as far as US-UK trade is concerned, the biggest areas where those barriers come into play are the provision of British healthcare and food. It is very difficult for American farmers to sell their goods into the UK and it is even more difficult for British farmers to do the same into the US. After Brexit, British farming could pivot to selling into the US but it would mean giving up a large chunk of its existing trade with the European Union.

The blunt truth is that one reason why a meaningful trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom will never be struck is that it ranges across far too many areas that are politically sensitive. The UK contributed more signatures to petitions opposing TTIP, the mothballed EU-US trade deal, than any other member state. The popularity and visceral attachment that all but an eccentric minority of British people have to the NHS, and the political sensitivities around anything to do with animal welfare in the UK, make it politically painful for any government to sign a US-UK trade deal.

Anyone devoting large amounts of political energy to securing such a deal has forgotten recent British political history: Tony Blair, with a landslide majority, had to retreat over genetically modified foods, while the Conservatives’ abandonment of a commitment to banning the sale of ivory contributed to its election losses in 2017. Anyone who thinks a US-UK trade negotiation would be dominated by a scholarly discussion of the scientific rights and wrongs of chemically washing chicken is kidding themselves. It would be horror stories about Frankenstein foods and the NHS being sold for parts. 

The time and energy based around the politically enervating topic of a trade deal could be better spent on actually increasing US-UK trade, something that Germany has managed to do with China to the point that China is its biggest trade partner, despite the lack of a formal trade deal.

And that obsession with the signing of formal trade deals and its impact on the final Brexit end state continues to be one of the biggest wastes of time and energy in British politics.