Britain's chief negotiator David Frost arrives to attend Brexit talks with EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission in Brussels, Belgium, on July 15, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

The latest round of EU-UK trade talks finished on Friday with some signs that a deal could yet be reached this Autumn.

Yet, the UK’s wider Brexit trade strategy remains hampered with Japan the only major economy with which an agreement may be imminent.

While Brexiteers play down these problems, it is undeniable that not as much progress has been made as was pledged before and since the 2016 referendum. Take the example of former trade secretary Liam Fox who the UK government nominated last month as its candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation.

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Fox also told cheering Conservative members at the party’s 2017 Autumn Conference that “we’re going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the EU so we’ve got no disruption of trade”.

Yet, some seven months after the United Kingdom finally left the Brussels-based club in January 2020, following delays in the departure, Fox’s promise remains unfulfilled. Indeed, as of January 2020, Boris Johnson’s government was only able to sign few of the 40 free trade deals Fox faithfully promised for “the second after” EU withdrawal.

Lack of progress in post-Brexit trade deals

To be sure, there appear more UK ‘successes’ on the horizon, including a potentially imminent UK-Japan trade deal. One of the ironies of this agreement, however, is that because of tight time frames the emerging deal follows very closely the framework of the one that the EU recently negotiated with Japan in order to save time.

Japan aside, other allies of the United Kingdom have criticised the lack of progress in talks over post-Brexit trade deals, insisting the UK government is not “match-fit” for negotiations. Those were the words of New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters who said last week that London still is not ready to properly engage in talks with his nation and that he is “very frustrated” advising “the British to realise that you can do more than one deal at a time”.

There are key areas ripe for US-UK agreement in a deal...however, potential icebergs lie on the horizon too, whether Trump or Biden wins, including agriculture where there are divergences of views and strong interest groups.


He warned of a potentially big risk of overstretch with the UK government negotiating multiple trade deals at one time. And he also claimed that London is sometimes lacking the capability to know even what it wants from its negotiations, giving the upper hand to other countries which do.

While the United Kingdom has formidable strengths as a nation, what this situation underlines is how much some Brexiteers were significantly too optimistic.

Talk of Britain unlocking a new era of global trade in the 2020s, including swift negotiation of very favourable trade deals with a broad array of countries, have been muted by the reality of the UK’s bargaining power in a world shaped by global economic superpowers including the United States and China.

Washington and Beijing, which boast the world’s largest economies, are two good examples of the challenges that the United Kingdom faces. Both nations are key priorities for Johnson’s team to secure trade deals with.

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It is clear that both Donald Trump and Johnson see a potential, post-Brexit, US-UK trade deal as the cornerstone of a renewed ‘special relationship’. However, as much as both sides may ultimately want an agreement, London has abandoned hopes of clinching one ahead of the presidential election given the political pressures that come with this.

In so doing, Trade Secretary Liz Truss criticised the Trump team for talking “a good game” on free trade while restricting import access, and she will be aware that Democrat Joe Biden, if elected in November, has indicated that he would prioritise a US free trade deal with the larger EU market than that of the United Kingdom.

To be sure, there are key areas ripe for US-UK agreement in a deal, including lowering or eliminating tariffs on goods. Equally, however, potential icebergs lie on the horizon too, whether Trump or Biden wins, including agriculture where there are divergences of views and strong interest groups.

Why Beijing-London ties are in deep freeze

Complicated as a UK-US trade deal may prove, between two close allies, it may prove to be a ‘cake-walk’ compared to agreeing one with China.

The relationship between Beijing and London is in the deep freeze following Johnson’s U-turn over using Huawei technology in the UK’s 5G network, disagreements over Hong Kong, and UK concerns over China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Indeed, there is now a real possibility that bilateral relations could become even frostier than during the period after then-prime minister David Cameron gravely offended Beijing by meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012.

London quickly reversed tack after this and the Conservative governments of both a chastened Cameron subsequently ratcheted down, in public at least, human rights concerns about China with relations entering what was called a “golden era” after President Xi Jinping’s UK visit in 2015.

That era, however, may now be a bygone age, despite many in the United Kingdom believing that the bilateral relationship could make a significant contribution to UK prosperity for a generation.

Yet, for now at least, the government has decided that its growing political concerns over China will trump its financial needs, post-Brexit, with what might become in the next decade the world’s largest economy.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics