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Britain, EU Formally Start Splitting WTO Membership Agreements

FILE - Delegates arrive at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
FILE - Delegates arrive at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Britain and the European Union formally filed for divorce at the World Trade Organization on Tuesday, following many months of diplomatic preparations to smooth the way for the historic move.

The WTO circulated two confidential draft membership agreements among the Geneva trade club's 164 members, separating Britain's rights and obligations in merchandise trade from the EU's for the first time in the WTO's 23-year history. A separate split of services trade is expected to follow.

"It seeks to replicate the concessions and commitments applicable to the U.K. as part of the EU today. An important milestone as we prepare for our departure from the EU," British Ambassador Julian Braithwaite wrote in a tweet.

Britain's draft document, officially known as its "schedule," is 719 pages long.

"WTO members will have three months to review the schedule, which will be considered to be approved if there are no objections from other members," the WTO said in a statement.

Until now the EU has represented Britain at the WTO, and Britain's membership rights were not set out distinctly, even though Britain was always a WTO member in its own right. Its June 2016 decision to leave the EU meant disentangling their trade rules to allow Britain to act independently.

Britain's government says that only minimal changes will be needed in the text and it does not expect any difficulties, apart from potentially in agriculture.

Seven agricultural suppliers - including the United States, Canada and Australia -have already said they disapprove of the terms of the divorce, since they will lose flexibility to switch exports between Britain and the rest of the EU.

Their objections are likely to force Britain into a wider negotiation, said David Henig, a former British trade official who now leads the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Center for International Political Economy (ECIPE).

"As the U.K.'s first serious trade negotiation in years, many will be watching to see how the UK government performs in negotiating at the WTO, and how they handle the debate domestically," he wrote in a report.

"At this stage we see a stuttering start, but this could ironically be the opportunity needed to get on the right track and set a positive path for our future trade policy."

Britain has been laying the groundwork for this step for more than a year, and it sent an informal proposal in October, followed by a proposal for services trade in February.

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