Politics Analysis

U.K. PM Theresa May, desperate for post-Brexit deals, plays a weak hand

Canada, U.K. form 'working group' on post-Brexit ties — but how much work can it do?

Posted: September 19, 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday they hope the Canada-EU trade deal would form the basis for a 'smooth transition' to a post-Brexit relationship. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The British call it the "copy and paste" strategy: the fond hope their country will be able to duplicate the trade agreements it enjoys as a member of the European Union once it leaves the group in 2019.

It's a shrunken ambition for those who campaigned for Brexit.

After all, breaking free of the EU was supposed to restore a golden age of free trade as countries rushed to renegotiate deals with a Britain free of Eurocratic interference.


The best now on offer, it seems, is to try to hang on to the deals Britain already has under the EU.

'Racking up Air Miles'

That was one of Theresa May's main goals during her visit to Canada on Monday, just three days before the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA) takes effect.

As of Thursday, the U.K. will enjoy a free trade arrangement with Canada that its own government economists estimate should be worth about $3.5 billion a year to the island nation.

But that bonanza will be short-lived. Because the British voted to leave the European Union, the U.K. will find itself outside of CETA in March 2019. A deal that took seven years to negotiate will expire for the U.K. after only 18 months.

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake describes May's visit to Canada (and New York) this week as "racking up Air Miles desperately trying to recreate what we have already."

May, however, is promising Britain what she calls a "seamless transition" from its current EU-based trade deals to new post-Brexit bilateral ones.


Canada is willing to allow CETA to form the basis of a new deal, though not necessarily to cut and paste the original without any modifications.

The British have set up joint working groups with 13 countries, including Canada, to try to informally advance negotiating positions so they can hit the ground running once Britain's divorce from the EU is official.

But Canada is reluctant to irritate the EU by seeming in a rush to negotiate with the U.K. EU rules forbid member states from conducting their own trade negotiations.

In his joint news conference with May on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about negotiations "that respect the rules and requirements of the European Union."

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PM Justin Trudeau and U.K. PM Theresa May discuss the transition required for future trade between Canada and the U.K. in a post-Brexit world.  1:19

So, it remains to be seen how much work those working groups will really do.


If Canada and Britain were to sign a deal the day after Brexit became official, it might be hard for Canada to argue it hadn't flouted the EU rules.

Weak negotiating position?

Brexit campaigners like Boris Johnson, now May's foreign secretary, assured voters in the run-up to the 2016 referendum that countries would be lining up to do business with the U.K.

That hasn't happened.

The ruling Conservative Party, saddled with much of the responsibility for causing Brexit, is trying desperately to ensure it doesn't sever the country's trade ties with the rest of the world.

What May needs most is to show the British people the country is preparing for March 2019 by restoring at least some of the market access it stands to lose.

And that's where Canada comes in.


Daggers drawn at home

Sensing May's weakness, Britain's ambitious and unpredictable foreign secretary seems to have chosen this moment to stab her in the back.

Johnson wrote a 4,000-word op-ed in the Daily Telegraph on Friday, dedicated to his personal vision of Brexit.

The tone was bombastic ("I am here to tell you that this country will succeed in our new national enterprise, and will succeed mightily"), but the intent was treacherous, according to his fellow Conservative MPs who almost uniformly interpreted it as Johnson's opening bid for the party's leadership (and therefore, May's job as prime minister).

Once again, cabinet ministers were sniping at each other in the press. Home Secretary Amber Rudd accused Johnson of trying to drive the Brexit process from "the back seat."

(Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Many in the caucus demanded Johnson be fired, but May has decided to ignore his act of disloyalty, apparently calculating that her government can ill-afford to add to the impression of chaos and infighting at the top.


May is vulnerable after calling an unnecessary election in June that ended up costing the Conservatives their majority.

She had believed the voters would deliver a coup de grâce to a weakened Labour Party and give her a commanding 200-seat majority. She ended up re-energizing the opposition.

She's had to make a humiliating deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party just to remain in 10 Downing St.

Shambolic negotiations

If Britain's acrimonious divorce talks with the EU are anything to go by, the country isn't well-prepared to negotiate a new global web of trade agreements.

Britain's Brexit negotiators have been consistently outplayed by their EU counterparts, who feel that both time and the EU's rules are on their side.

Attempts by the U.K. to reset the terms of the negotiations, or to try to change the topic from the divorce settlement to the new relationship that will emerge after the split, have all failed.


(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

And as Britain turns to Canada and other nations to try to shore up its trade networks, its negotiators face a similar problem: everyone knows they are desperate for a deal.

Canada is quite pleased with its overall trade position at the moment, despite the fears caused by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And this Thursday, Canada will gain precisely what the U.K. is now on course to lose: free trade with the European Union.


Evan Dyer
Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.