When Liam Fox, the UK international trade secretary, brought 27 officials to Washington to open trade talks with the US this year, the team had next to no experience negotiating trade deals, newly-released documents show.
By contrast, the 77-strong US working group in Washington was made up largely of seasoned negotiators. The Office of the United States Trade Representative alone sent 20 officials with direct experience of negotiating and enforcing trade deals.
A list of attendees and the agenda from the first meeting of the US-UK Trade Working Group, held on July 24-25, was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by journalists at Unearthed, an investigative journalism project at Greenpeace. The documents were shared with the Financial Times and illustrate an apparent mismatch between Britain’s inexperienced trade negotiators and their more seasoned global counterparts.
Mr Fox’s delegation in July was made up mostly of senior staff from the UK Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the EU. The London emissaries included some experienced civil servants, including career diplomats, but only a minority had worked in trade and none had directly carried out trade negotiations.
The UK’s relative lack of experienced negotiators can be explained in part because the European Commission has taken the lead in international trade negotiations since the 1970s. British officials, like their counterparts from other EU member states, have typically sat behind EU negotiators during trade talks.
While some British civil servants have worked within the commission on trade deals in recent years, none of those individuals joined Mr Fox in July. The trade secretary’s delegation to Washington also lacked external consultants or private sector advisers with direct trade experience.
By contrast, the US delegation, which was led by Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, was packed with highly-experienced specialists.
The UK Department for International Trade said the ministry had the right levels of capability, having recruited the “best and brightest talent” among its 3,450 employees, including “expert economic analysts and lawyers”.
The department hired Crawford Falconer, an “internationally recognised trade expert” from New Zealand, this summer to be its expert adviser on trade negotiation and strategy.
But John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said the newly-released documents showed a “staggering” experience gap between the two sides.
“These are some of the most important negotiations Britain has engaged in since the war, but it seems the UK is as prepared as someone turning up for the Wimbledon final wielding a ping-pong bat,” he said.
Oliver Griffiths, director of capability at the trade department, told a parliamentary committee last year that trade negotiators were not “mythical creatures” and many civil servants had the relevant skills. He said at the time that Whitehall needed to recruit “across the piece” to address the shortage of trade negotiators, but said the “strong preference” was to recruit internally.
Until the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, Mr Fox is not allowed to strike trade deals with countries outside of the bloc. But the international trade secretary has engaged in a whirlwind of international diplomacy since taking up the job last year. He has also set up a UK Board of Trade, with representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will meet for the first time on Thursday.
The Washington trip was described in documents as a preliminary meeting to strengthen the bilateral trade and investment relationship. According to the agenda, the two-day meeting included talks on trade strategy, WTO issues, goods, textiles and apparel, regulation, industrial tariffs and agriculture.