Ever since the United Kingdom voted last June to leave the European Union, top Republicans, including President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have talked up prospects for quickly working out a free-trade deal to cement the “special relationship” between Washington and London.
One top Trump adviser, Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci, even suggested earlier this month that the new administration could wrap up such an agreement within the “first six months or the first year.”
But with Trump set to host British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday for his first international summit since taking office, experts are cautioning that EU rules and international trade mechanisms make it impossible to meet that timetable.
“There can be no formal negotiations while the U.K. remains an EU member state,” the EU ambassador to Washington, David O’Sullivan, told Yahoo News in a telephone interview Thursday. “There can be informal discussions.”
Those behind-the-scenes talks are already underway between top Trump advisers and the British government, with a goal of moving quickly toward a formal deal once Britain has formally left the EU, U.S. officials say. Some British politicians have floated the possibility that an agreement could get done in as little as 90 days after “Brexit,” as the withdrawal is commonly known.
But the timing of Brexit itself is not clear. Negotiations between London and the EU — known as “Article 50” talks — have not begun, and could take up to two years. Nor is it clear what Britain’s formal economic relationship with the European Union will be, including what level of access, if any, it will have to the common market, something that could complicate any future commercial agreements.
After Brexit, Britain will also have to negotiate its status with fellow World Trade Organization (WTO) countries, another process of unknown duration.
How quickly Washington and London could ratify a deal will also depend on how ambitious they want to be — and whether it will simply set tariff rates, or cover investment and services.
With such complicated arrangements looming, Trump complained to Republican lawmakers at their retreat on Thursday that the Senate has yet to confirm billionaire Wilbur Ross as his commerce secretary. Trump is known to want to give the Department of Commerce some of the U.S. trade representative’s powers to negotiate agreements.
“I’m meeting with the prime minister tomorrow,” Trump said. “I don’t have my commerce secretary, they want to talk trade. So I’ll have to handle it myself. Which is OK.”
Republicans in Congress privately express confidence that a deal will be reached, but have mostly shied away from predicting when, while noting that trade with the United States would help make it easier for Britain to part ways with the European Union.
It’s the mirror image of the argument that then-President Barack Obama made last year.
In April 2016, Obama urged British voters not to vote to leave the European Union, warning that doing so would leave the U.K. “at the back of the queue” for trade deals with the United States. A majority disregarded that message and in June, backed the referendum to leave.