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UK's globetrotting trade chief defends globalism

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Britain will stand by the poverty-alleviating benefits of free trade as it charts its difficult divorce from the EU, a top minister said Tuesday despite the country's need to cosy up to President Donald Trump's America.

[DAVOS, Switzerland] Britain will stand by the poverty-alleviating benefits of free trade as it charts its difficult divorce from the EU, a top minister said Tuesday despite the country's need to cosy up to President Donald Trump's America.

In an interview with AFP at the World Economic Forum, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said he would use the Davos meetings to press Britain's case in talks with US and other counterparts.

"We'll be continuing to push our case for global free trade, with Britain acting as a champion of free trade as we leave the European Union and take up our independent seat on the WTO (World Trade Organisation)," he said.

Mr Fox has repeatedly visited Washington and the WTO's headquarters in Geneva to forge a post-Brexit arrangement for Britain, and is just back from talks in China.

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Mr Fox said he discussed with Chinese officials issues surrounding market access for British exports, including its key sector of financial services.

"The common factor is how do we get an open trading system that is to the benefit of not just businesses but consumers across the world - remembering, as we should at the World Economic Forum, that open global trade has been the way in which we have taken a billion people out of abject poverty in the last generation," he said.

"It's not acceptable that those of us who've benefited from this system simply pull up the drawbridge behind us."

In Davos on Mr Thursday, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to hold talks with Trump, an avowed enemy of existing trade pacts and unabashed proponent of "America First".

China is no less fierce in protecting its interests, but Mr Fox insisted that Brexit would yield Britain a stronger international presence than staying inside the EU.

ONE RULE FOR ALL

However, one of the British cabinet's most ardent "Brexiteers" also defended the government's talk of a two-year transition period after the EU exit, when Britain would continue to pay into the bloc's coffers in return for access to its single market and customs union.

Such a temporary alignment would "make sure that we have maximum stability for our businesses".

And it was in the EU's best interest to protect its current trade surplus with Britain, Mr Fox said.

"There is a strong willingness to do business with the UK, but then who doesn't want to get access to the world's fifth biggest economy?"

More broadly, despite Trump's protectionist rhetoric and preference for one-off trade deals, Mr Fox said Britain believes "fundamentally in a rules-based system".

"If the WTO didn't exist today we would have to invent it, because the alternative to a rules-based system is a deals-based system," he said.

"That might be good for the very biggest economies, but it wouldn't be good for the rest, and we are dependent for prosperity and stability on wider global prosperity, and that's what we are aiming for."

AFP

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