Marianne Schneider-Petsinger
Geoeconomics Fellow, US and the Americas Programme
Having Britain as an additional party to a US−EU free-trade agreement would benefit all sides.
A Union flag hangs in the window of a British grocery store in New York City. Photo by Getty Images.A Union flag hangs in the window of a British grocery store in New York City. Photo by Getty Images.

Even though President Barack Obama cautioned that the UK would be at the ‘back of the queue’ for a trade agreement with the US if the country chose to leave the EU, in the post-Brexit world a deal might be struck more swiftly. Various ideas for bringing the UK and US into a formal trade arrangement have been floated – ranging from a bilateral UK-US trade deal, or the UK joining NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico), to the UK becoming a part of the TPP (the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the US is pursuing with 11 other countries along the Pacific Rim). However, one option stands out: opening the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which the US and EU are currently negotiating, to the UK after Brexit.

Good reasons for Britain in TTIP

First, from the perspective of the UK, signing up to TTIP would mean a more comprehensive deal with the US than a bilateral UK−US trade agreement. For instance, Britain is very keen to include financial services regulation in any trade agreement with America, but given Washington’s reluctance, this ambition might only be achievable if other countries like France and Germany throw their financial weight into the negotiations.

Second, continuing involvement in the TTIP negotiations allows London to begin securing its trade position with the US now. Though its influence in the EU may weaken as it heads for the exit, Britain could make the best use of influencing the EU position on TTIP while it is still a member. It could then accept the terms of TTIP and accede as a third party relatively quickly after exiting the EU. Official negotiations on a UK−US-only deal would have to wait until the UK has left the EU, as trade talks fall under the exclusive competence of the EU.

Third, for the US and EU, having the UK as a party to TTIP would ensure the scale of the deal is not reduced, and thereby maintain the strategic appeal and ability to set global standards. At the moment, the UK is the EU’s second-largest economy, accounting for approximately 18 per cent of GDP. With Britain in TTIP, the sheer size of the transatlantic market space will have more pull for other countries to adopt the common transatlantic rules in order to gain market access.

Fourth, the UK joining TTIP as a third party would establish the agreement as an ‘open platform’ that is available for other countries to join. Michael Froman, the United States trade representative, has characterized TTIP as being such an open agreement. EU representatives have been more ambivalent, though this is starting to change in the wake of Brexit. David O’Sullivan, the current EU ambassador to the US, recently said that as ‘we’ve always seen TTIP as a potential open platform, [the] UK could still benefit [from it] even not as a member of the European Union’. While now might not be the right time to expand the TTIP bloc beyond its original participants given that negotiations are already complex and drawn out, it would be beneficial for the negotiating partners to send a strong message that countries that are willing and able to commit to the high TTIP standards will be welcomed later on.

Obstacles to Britain in TTIP

But before the UK could be added to TTIP after Brexit, major hurdles will have to be jumped and crucial questions answered. The first obstacle is actually getting a TTIP deal, which will require significant efforts by political leaders and negotiators on both sides of the Atlantic.

Second, selling the ‘UK in TTIP option’ to Brexiteers will not be an easy task. After all, Leave campaigners argued that the US−EU deal might undermine the NHS and was thus presented as one of the reasons to cut loose from Brussels. As the major rationale behind TTIP is regulatory harmonization, if the UK were to sign up to TTIP it would still have to apply many EU rules. This, however, would go counter to the arguments for leaving the EU in the first place.

Third, it will be a challenging job for the UK to untangle its trade relationship with the EU while at the same time negotiating TTIP together with the EU. It would be easiest if the UK decided to remain a member of the EU customs union. Britain would then be required to impose the EU’s external tariffs on countries like the US. This would fit seamlessly with the ‘UK in TTIP’ option. But as the UK will most likely pull out of the customs union, it will be more complicated than that.

Finally, the timing of Brexit and the TTIP negotiations could cause complications. In the unlikely event that a US-EU free trade deal is concluded and ratified while the UK is still a member of the EU, the agreement (or the parts of it that fall under national competence) would most likely continue to apply to Britain after Brexit without the need for accession. If the TTIP negotiations continue beyond Brexit, then the UK would move from negotiating as part of the EU bloc to becoming a third party. This raises the issue of whether the UK and EU continue to negotiate as one bloc vis-à-vis the US.

Special economic relationship

Still, the depth of the economic ties between the US and UK means that the TTIP option is likely to be welcomed favourably by both countries. The US is the most important single export market for the UK, with goods and services worth £45 billion shipped in 2015. Last year, the US ranked third (after Germany and China) as a source for UK imports. With nearly $1 trillion invested in each other’s economies, the US and the UK are also each other’s largest investors. Given this special economic relationship, Britain is unlikely to be at the ‘back of the queue’ in any event. But the TTIP option is the best path to preserving and strengthening the relationship post-Brexit while also realizing the wider strategic benefits of a transatlantic trade agreement.

A version of this article appeared on Real Clear World.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback