The American ambassador has cast doubt on whether Britain and the United States can strike a comprehensive free trade deal after Brexit.
Woody Johnson told The Yorkshire Post it was still “unclear exactly what is on the table” despite Theresa May publishing her Brexit plan in a white paper this month.
America’s top diplomat in the UK also gave a muted response to the Prime Minister’s decision to take personal charge of withdrawal negotiations with Brussels and suggested she should prioritise striking free trade deals around the world over close ties with the EU.
Brexiteers see the prospect of a UK-US trade deal as one of the top prizes on offer for leaving the EU.
But Brexit critics warn that cutting close ties with the EU would badly damage the UK economy, given 43 per cent of the country’s trade is with the continent.
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US President Donald Trump said as he visited the UK earlier this month that Mrs May’s plan for a “common rulebook” with the EU on goods would “probably kill” the prospect of a transatlantic trade deal.
But a day later, Mr Trump rowed back during a joint press conference with Mrs May, insisting “whatever you do is okay by me”, adding “just make sure we can trade together, that’s all that matters”, and also stressing that after speaking with the PM he thought a deal would “absolutely be possible”.
Pressed during a visit to Leeds on whether a comprehensive UK-US trade deal was still on offer given the PM’s plan, Mr Johnson said: “It’s very hard, I’ve been over here since last August and it’s unclear to me exactly what is on the table.
“We looked at the white paper and it’s 100 pages, so we’ll see exactly how this all evolves. The Prime Minister is now taking over the negotiation, so, yeah.”
Asked if Mrs May taking over negotiations was a good sign, Mr Johnson said: “For a bilateral trade deal? It depends what outcome you’re looking for.”
Mr Johnson said the ideal outcome for the US would be a trade deal with Britain, and suggested it could be more valuable to the UK than maintaining close ties with the EU.
The ambassador added: “Remember the level of (UK) trade with the EU as I understand it has gone down in the last decade at least, or more, versus the rest of the world, so that’s continuing to go down,” he said.
“So I would think these bilateral trade agreements or multilateral trade agreements would be increasingly more important rather than less important.”
The US is going through the white paper in detail and would be lobbying the Government over its contents, Mr Johnson said.
He added: “We’ve got close to a trillion and a half dollars of direct investment on both sides, £250bn-plus in trade, so we definitely have a seat at the table on this.”
The full interview appears in The Yorkshire Post today