EU Leaders Slap Down Britain Over U.S. Trade Talks

European Union leaders have reacted angrily to the news that Britain wants to strike a quick trade deal with the U.S., reminding Britain that no official deal can be done while she remains within the EU.

The warning came as the British prime minister, Theresa May, prepares to head to Washington D.C. to meet with America’s new President Donald Trump. May has signalled that she plans to discuss a “future trading relationship” when the two sit down on Friday.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last week angered EU leaders when, en-route to a meeting in Brussels, he expressed delight at the prospect of a “very fast” deal with the U.S. During the meeting, he was made to restate the formal legal position that Britain is barred from negotiating trade deals while still within the EU, The Times has reported.

Commenting after the meeting, the EU’s foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini stated the EU’s position in no uncertain terms, saying: “It’s absolutely clear on the EU side that as long as a country is a member state of the EU, which is something the UK is at the moment, there are no negotiations bilaterally on any trade agreement with third parties. This is in the treaties and this is valid for all member states as long as they remain member states, until the very last day.”

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, Downing Street officials have said that May and Trump will “discuss how we can deepen our already huge economic and commercial relationship to the benefit of both of our countries, including our shared ambition to sign a UK-US trade deal once the UK has left the EU”.

However, Trump is known to favour a swift agreement. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4’s Today, former economic advisor to the president Stephen Moore said Britain would not have to offer very much to secure a deal as the president is keen to prove that he considers Britain one of America’s closest allies.

Although Britain is keen to slow down the pace of talks – not least as Whitehall has little capability for negotiating a complex trade deal with the world’s largest economy, having handed off responsibility for trade to the EU – ministers are testing Brussels’s tolerance over preliminary trade discussions.

Last week, the minister for exiting the EU, David Davis, told colleagues in the House of Commons that Britain’s obligations under the EU’s “Duty of Sincere Co-operation” allowed for considerable tolerance. As the precise definition of how much preparation Britain can make ahead of leaving the EU is unclear, London has opted to push ahead.

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