WASHINGTON — The U.K. is hoping for a special Christmas present from President Donald Trump: a formal signal that he plans to begin talks on a free-trade agreement with them in early spring 2019.
The U.K. and the United States will soon have the opportunity to negotiate “a trailblazing modern free-trade agreement,” said Liam Fox, Britains secretary of state for international trade, in remarks at the Heritage Foundation.
However, two steps must occur before that can happen: the U.K. must complete its exit from the 28-nation European Union, which is currently scheduled for March 29, 2019, and the Trump administration must give Congress 90 days notice of its intention to begin free-trade talks with the U.K.
“That means if we want to start on the 30th of March, that notification has to be given to Congress before Christmas,” Fox said after meetings on Tuesday with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Fox declined to say whether he has a firm commitment from the Trump administration that it would send the required notification to Congress before the end of December. However, he noted the U.K. recently began public consultations on a trade deal with the United States with that timetable in mind.
In addition, the United States and the U.K. have already held four rounds of talks in preparation for the eventual launch of free-trade negotiations.
A USTR spokeswoman also declined to say whether Lighthizer would send the formal notification letter in December. Last week, Trump criticized the terms of the U.K.s latest Brexit plan, but also said he hopes to negotiate a “great trade deal” with the nation.
The government of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is anxious to show the British public and the rest of the world that it will be able to forge a commercially meaningful new trading relationship once it leaves the EU.
A big part of that task is working out its trade relations with the remaining 27 nations of the European bloc, which currently accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.K.s goods and services exports.
“We hope it will be a full, open, comprehensive trading relationship because to do otherwise would be damaging to economic interests across Europe. But we fully depend, at the earliest opportunity, to be furthering our independent trade policy,” said Fox, who was invited to give the Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture at Heritages headquarters in Washington.
A U.S.-U.K. trade deal should build on already strong trade and investment ties, especially in the area of financial services, where the two countries have long been global leaders, he said.
“Our deep and broad relationship on financial services is a cornerstone of the modern global economy. We should make it even easier in the future for businesses to operate across the Atlantic through frictionless trade,” Fox said.
His comments came while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was also in Washington for talks that EU officials hope will reduce trade tensions over Trumps decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and his threat to set them on auto imports as well.
Fox said Junckers visit drives home the U.K.s desire to be able to conduct its own trade relations, but he also said he hopes it would help ease the war of words.
“What I think everyone wants to see is a de-escalation in the tensions over tariffs at the present time so that we can try to get back to dealing with some of the bigger issues in terms of the global economy,” Fox said.