Ministers have admitted for the first time that about 65 existing trade deals with non-EU countries are at risk because of Brexit, it has been claimed.
The Government has previously argued the benefits will not be lost because those other countries have agreed to “roll over” the agreements when Britain leaves the EU.
But a new technical note has now revealed that the UK is seeking to be treated legally as a “member state” during the transition period – in order to maintain the trade deals.
The use of the phrase “member state” is certain to enrage hard Brexit supporters, who will fear it reveals that Britain will not truly have left the EU if Theresa May strikes her transition deal.
“To coin a phrase, they are going to tell the world that Brexit does not mean Brexit,” said one EU official who spoke to The Financial Times.
However, the note – dumped on a Government website as MPs left Westminster for a 12-day break – has also fuelled criticism that ministers have obscured the full potential trading blow from Brexit.
Chile, Israel, Egypt Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey are among the 65-odd countries with which the UK currently enjoys trade deals, because of EU membership.
Unless a deal is reached to keep the UK fully covered by the agreements, Britain risks being bound by the obligations imposed - without enjoying any of the benefits.
Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green Party and supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, said the note revealed Trade Secretary Liam’s Fox boasts of creating a “global Britain” to be “a bad joke”.
“Liam Fox and his trade department have been trying to pretend for months that all our existing trade deals as an EU member state will just be rolled over or renegotiated, no problem,” she said
“Now we know this was all just posturing from a minister who has placed himself and the country in an impossibly weak negotiating position.”
Until now, Brussels has made clear that it expects Britain to be treated as a “third country” after Brexit, in March 2019, even if a transition of about two years follows.
The technical note makes clear that Britain will require permission from both the EU and the other parties to the agreements for its member state benefits to continue beyond departure day.
“The key requirement would be the clear agreement of the parties that the underlying treaty continued to apply to the UK during the implementation period,” it states.
The request is a clear U-turn on the Government’s stance until now, which has been an attempt to replicate the agreements with UK-only bilateral deals with the relevant countries.
Lord Price, former minister at the Department for International Trade, insisted this would not prove problematic, claiming, in October last year, “they all have agreed [to] roll over”.
A Department for International Trade Spokesperson said: “Our Trade Bill will enable us to transition existing EU trade arrangements providing continuity and certainty for businesses and we have always been clear that this work would take into account the terms and timing of any implementation period when agreed with the EU.
“This is a technical exercise, not an opportunity to renegotiate terms. We have already held discussions with more than 70 countries, and none have displayed any interest in disrupting trade flows, or in erecting barriers to trade that do not currently exist.
“We are preparing for every eventuality so our bilateral work continues with partner countries to secure continuity of these agreements beyond the implementation period.”
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