Britain paves the way for post-Brexit trade deals
Britain is busily laying the groundwork for post-Brexit trade with a flurry of international diplomacy -- but can only tentatively explore options until it officially departs the European Union.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May's government has stepped up talks in recent months with the United States, Japan and Commonwealth countries, seeking to carve out ambitious accords for the post-Brexit era.
US President Donald Trump this week touted the prospects of a "very big" trade pact with Britain, raising eyebrows in Brussels -- where Brexit talks have barely got off the ground after starting last month.
His surprise words came as British trade minister Liam Fox met his US counterpart Robert Lighthizer for top-level talks, before heading to Mexico.
The United States is Britain's largest national export market -- bigger than France and Germany combined -- and the number one destination for British investment.
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson was meanwhile on a globe-trotting tour of the southern hemisphere, stopping off last week in Australia and New Zealand, having already drummed up business in Japan.
Johnson, a leading campaigner for Britain to quit the European Union prior to the June 2016 shock Brexit referendum, declared New Zealand could expect to be one of the first nations to ink a trade deal with London.
- Brexit signal -
Jim Rollo, law professor at the University of Sussex, said the government was eager to show progress in trade talks because of domestic party politics.
"They need, for internal Conservative Party management reasons, to signal that Brexit is happening despite the lack of progress so far in Brussels," Rollo told AFP.
"The UK cannot legally sign new trade agreements until it leaves the EU and thus the EU common commercial policy."
EU rules prohibit Britain from negotiating new trade deals until it has left the bloc -- which is scheduled for March 2019.
The European Commission wants to resolve crucial issues, including citizens' rights and Britain's exit bill, so that a future trade deal can be hammered out starting in October with the bloc's remaining 27 nations.
"There will be no substantive progress on trade agreements until we leave and perhaps even later depending on target countries' own intentions to sign an agreement with the EU 27 -- an economy more than five times bigger than the UK," Rollo said.
He stressed that Australia and New Zealand both wanted to ink deals with the European Union first -- before entering an agreement with Britain.
Crawford Falconer, formerly New Zealand's trade ambassador, was recently appointed as Britain's new chief trade negotiation adviser.
Britain is keen to maintain its global place as a major commercial power in the world economy.
International trade to and from Britain is worth an estimated £700 billion ($912 billion, 783 billion euros) -- and around half of that is with the EU.
- Chickens home to roost? -
The debate about post-Brexit trade has taken a less than entirely serious turn in recent days, with a focus on whether Britain will import chlorine-washed chickens from the United States as part of any deal.
Fox has said there is "no health issue" with the controversial practice, while Environment Secretary Michael Gove has insisted they will not be allowed into Britain.
The importing of poultry washed in chlorinated water -- a process commonly used by US producers to disinfect chicken -- is banned in the EU.
London's Times newspaper meanwhile cautioned over the rush to seal a deal with Trump.
"Last year 19 percent of UK exports went to the United States compared with 44 percent to the EU," the daily newspaper said in a leader column.
"No published analysis suggests that a US deal could make up the difference.
"If ministers pin their hopes on a speedy trade deal with Trump's America, it will not be long before those chlorine-doused chickens come home to roost."