Put up-Brexit US business: UK talks plan insists NHS ‘off the desk’

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The government has stressed that the NHS is “not on the table”, as it publishes its negotiating strategy for post-Brexit trade talks with the US.

The 180-page document also pledges to maintain food standards, lower import taxes, or tariffs, on many UK exports – and increase trade in services.

It estimates a deal could boost the UK economy in “the long run” by between 0.07% and 0.16%.

It comes as separate trade talks with the EU get under way in Brussels.

The US published its outline for trade talks with the UK last February. Talks on an agreement are expected to begin later this month.

The UK’s strategy document said a deal should also seek to boost trade in digital services, and make it easier for UK professionals to work in the US, and vice versa.

The UK will aim to lower trade barriers faced by British car manufacturers, ceramics makers and producers of products such as Cheddar cheese, the document adds.

The UK’s latest document said a deal would bring “significant opportunities” for all sectors of the British economy – and offered region-by-region examples of businesses that could benefit from an agreement.

The UK’s release of its wishlist for a trade deal with the UK was an hour behind schedule – and a full year behind America’s list.

It’s a reminder that nothing is likely to go to plan in the year ahead.

The UK, as expected, pledges to protect consumer standards and the NHS. But America wants more access for its farmers, which would likely necessitate a relaxing of standards.

And this is happening at the same time as talks with the EU get underway (conducted, to complicate matters with a different team under the authority of a different Whitehall department) – for whom a relaxing of standards is likely to be unpalatable.

The US has also specified it wants to be able to veto the UK’s ability to strike deals with “non-market economies” meaning the likes of China

How big are the potential gains? The Department for International Trade touts the potential for UK GDP to increase by £3.4bn if tariffs are eliminated (which actually goes beyond the stated objectives) and other barriers reduced by 50%.

So that’s a big “if” and in any case is equivalent to a scant 0.2% of GDP, and over the course of 15 years.

And that’s dwarfed by the hit to UK growth other studies have suggested will result from even a free trade agreement with the EU, compared to the status quo.

The discussions will take place in both the UK and US and be overseen by the government’s chief negotiation adviser Crawford Falconer – formerly New Zealand’s chief negotiator and ambassador to the World Trade Organization.

Speaking ahead of the publication of the document, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK had “the best negotiators in the business”.

“We’re going to drive a hard bargain to boost British industry,” he added.

‘NHS not on table’

In what appears to be a bid to push back against accusations made by Labour during the election that the health service would be up for sale under the Conservatives, the government also said any future deal must “protect” the NHS.

“The NHS will not be on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs will not be on the table,” the document says.

“The services the NHS provides will not be on the table. The NHS is not, and never will be, for sale to the private sector, whether overseas or domestic.”

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Confederation of British Industry director general Carolyn Fairbairn said it was “encouraging to see the government’s ambitions to make it easier for skilled people to move between the UK and US” and “support small business exporters”.

But Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said: “The government should be focused on getting a good trade deal with the EU – not cosying up to Donald Trump.”

‘False promises’

According to recent media reports, the EU will demand that the UK maintains a ban on washing chicken in chlorine and other disinfectants as the price for a trade agreement with the bloc. But the US has expressed frustration at the ban, arguing that it is not based on scientific evidence.

Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner accused the government of making “false promises” over commitments to protect the NHS and consumer standards, adding “there must be a full and proper scrutiny process for this and all trade agreements”.

The US is the UK’s largest trading partner after the EU, accounting for nearly 19% of all exports in 2018 and 11% of imports. The EU accounted for 45% of all exports and 53% of imports.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will this week use a trip to the Gulf to try and boost post-Brexit trade ties with Saudi Arabia and Oman.

He said both countries wanted to grow their economies in “sectors such as health, education and culture where the UK leads the world.”

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