U.K. looks to Canada as it works to build trade relationships

The United Kingdom is consulting with non-European trade partners such as Canada on how to handle trade after Brexit.

Britain has to build international trade capacity after decades of relying on Brussels

Liam Fox, Britain's new minister of international trade, is seeking advice from non-European trade partners - including Canada - on life after Brexit. (Steve Parsons/Associated Press)

Britain is looking to Canada for advice as the United Kingdom starts to beef up its trade negotiating capacity in preparation for life outside of the European Union. 

For decades, Britain has relied on EU bureaucrats in Brussels to handle trade talks — as was the case during the negotiations that led to the tentative Canada-Europe trade agreement known as CETA.

But now that it has voted to leave the EU, the U.K. has had to launch its own international trade department to hammer out new deals in the post-Brexit era.

Indeed, Britain's Department of International Trade is only a week old, created after British Prime Minister Theresa May assumed control of 10 Downing Street. The department will bring together bureaucrats from existing departments, namely UK Trade & Investment, which was largely focused on helping international businesses set-up shop in the U.K.

So when International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke with her newly-appointed British counterpart Liam Fox in London on Friday one of the topics of conversation was the composition of trade teams. 

"We did have a very positive conversation with the Secretary," Freeland's press secretary Alex Lawrence said in an email. "The minister shared details about the trade negotiating team in her department, and the two committed to work together to ratify CETA as quickly as possible.‎‎"

Canada has about 300 trade negotiators working for the federal government while Britain effectively has none as the EU had the exclusive power to negotiate trade agreements. Britain is reaching out to non-European trade partners to have initial discussions about post-Brexit trade agreements but also to seek advice on how to structure its suddenly necessary trade negotiation capacity.

Fox suggested in an interview with the Sunday Times that he had opened "very fruitful" trade talks with Canada during his conversation with Freeland, though Canadian officials were quick to say that the focus was on ratifying CETA rather than starting a new round of trade negotiations.

Despite the Brexit vote, Britain remains a part of the European Union and has no legal authority to finalize trade agreement until it completes it departure from the EU, a process that will take several years. 

There is still a vested interest in ratifying CETA, as Britain would benefit from the agreement while it remains part of the EU. CETA could also form the basis of a future bilateral trade agreement between Canada and the U.K. 

Britain 'very committed' to CETA: trade minister

CETA was negotiated by former prime minister Stephen Harper's government and finalized under the current Liberal government. 

The European Council, made up of government leaders from the EU's 28 member countries, will meet in October when they will decide on whether or not to sign the deal with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After this step, the deal is sent to the EU's Parliament for a vote. If the deal passes with a majority vote the deal is considered to be provisionally ratified and will then move on to the individual member states. Each EU member country will then have to sign off on the agreement, but 90 to 95 per cent of the deal will be put in place regardless of individual votes in those legislatures.

International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland says her British counterpart assured her he will push for the speedy ratification of CETA. (CBC)

Freeland remains upbeat about the deal's future despite uncertainty in Brussels. She says Fox assured her Britain would push to have the agreement finalized. 

"It was a very good conversation, and Dr. Fox — when I asked him if I could count on his and Britain's continued support for CETA — he told me Britain would not just be supporting CETA, Britain would be pushing for CETA at the EU table," Freeland said on a conference call with reporters Friday.

"The British government is very committed, and this is very good news to hear. We're very pleased."

Britain's High Commissioner to Canada, Howard Drake, told CBC News shortly after the Brexit vote that his country is eager to pen trade deals to avoid economic isolation after its EU departure.

"We'll be looking to make trade deals with other countries around the world, including Canada. Other countries that are currently outside the EU do have very good trading relationships with other countries, so we can be the same. We have a lot to bring to the party," he said.

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker