British diplomats are anxiously awaiting Senate confirmation of Katherine Tai as America’s new U.S. trade representative, in hopes of early progress on a U.S.-Britain trade agreement to reset the relationship following Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Karen Pierce, British ambassador to the United States, told a recent audience at American University in Washington that there had been “successive rounds of formal talks” with the previous administration of President Donald Trump and that informal working groups have continued to discuss details of a possible agreement.
“When Katherine Tai, the new USTR, is confirmed, we will need to talk to her about getting back to the formal stage,” Pierce said. “We would like to do that.”
At the time of the Brexit campaign, which led to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, the pro-Brexit camp had argued that the breakup would leave London free to negotiate a favorable pact with a sympathetic Trump-led administration in Washington.
But President Joe Biden declared during his campaign last year that he would not enter into any new trade deals until necessary investments had been made at home. Now, Pierce said, that leaves open “the question as to what happens to trade deals already in the making, like the U.K. one.”
The British envoy pointed out that Britain and the U.S. are among each other’s biggest trading and investment partners, and it would benefit both “to cement that and enhance it in a deal, but we need to see what the Biden administration has to say.”
Theodore R. Bromund, a specialist in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the Biden administration has every right to review what its predecessors have done but that it has essentially three choices.
He said the new team could continue the talks within the established framework, seek to revise the content and framework of the talks or abandon the project.
But, he said, the two countries share deep affinities and the same high regard for human rights and the rule for law, while wages and living standards are not as far apart as with some other countries.
“If the U.S. cannot negotiate a deal with the U.K., who else can it negotiate a deal with?” he asked.
Agriculture, health care
Michelle Egan, a professor at American University who focuses on comparative politics and political economy, said in a phone interview that some of the biggest sticking points in any trade agreement between the two countries concern agriculture and Britain’s national health system.
She said Brexit has left British farmers vulnerable, making it harder for London to offer concessions in the agricultural sector.
American demands for greater access to Britain’s health care industry are also a problem for London, according to Jacob F. Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and German Marshall Fund based in Brussels.
In written replies to questions from VOA, Kirkegaard said Britain’s National Health Service is seen as sacred by many of its citizens. That reverence has only deepened in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Ultimately, it comes down to politics in both U.S. and U.K.,” he said.
Pierce admitted that agriculture tends to be a difficult topic in almost any trade negotiation, “to be absolutely honest.” She added that the Biden administration’s “buy American” agenda could also pose a challenge to Britain and America’s other trading partners.
“It’s obviously a great concern to America’s trading friends and partners if there’s a very strong push for ‘buy American.’ So we’ll need to talk about that,” she said.
Pierce highlighted some “very good things” that are included in the deal under discussion between her country and the United States, including an emphasis on the role to be played by small- and medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs.
“Both our economies rely very much on this sector,” she said. “What’s really going to get the economy going again” after the pandemic “is the SMEs, so we think that’s a plus.”
She also said the prospective U.S.-British agreement would be the first free-trade agreement to look at digital commerce.