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UK-US: What's happened to their free trade deal?

July 8, 2023

It was meant to be the jewel in the Brexit crown, but the United Kingdom has, so far, failed to sign a free trade agreement with the United States.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom and United States President Joe Biden participate in a news conference
The UK has struggled to get Washington to sign a free trade agreementImage: Chris Kleponis/CNP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden's upcoming European trip, where he will be popping in to see UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, will no doubt reinforce the optics of the "special relationship" between the two countries. At the same time, it will also conceal the underlying fact that London needs Washington far more than vice versa.

Sunak was, of course, polite and diplomatic when signing the "Atlantic Declaration" with Biden in June, a watered-down version of a full-fledged free trade deal with the United States. But the unilateral recalibration of UK-US ties wasn't hard to miss. 

Sunak said a free trade agreement was no longer "a priority" for either side, and his officials said the declaration marked a "less sentimental and more pragmatic" approach to the UK-US "special relationship." 

For many, it was a watershed moment — the moment when Brexit's dreams of unfettered UK global trade came crashing down to earth. For others, it was simply a reminder that the UK outside the European Union is weaker and less attractive to the US.

Brexit regret, or Bregret, spreads in UK

For Brexiteers in the UK, a free trade deal with the US was one of several promises made before and after the 2016 referendum that have failed to come to fruition. A potential deal with Washington was widely seen as partly compensating for the loss of free access to the EU, the UK's largest trading partner.

Why is the UK unable to get the US to sign a free trade deal?

"Policy priorities in the US have changed [...] The US has moved away from the concept of traditional free trade agreements," said Emanuel Adam, executive director of trans-Atlantic trade association BritishAmerican Business.

While the UK struggled to get former US President Donald Trump to walk the talk on his promise of a "massive" trade deal during his time in the White House, it hasn't been any easier with Biden at the helm. Protectionist pro-American trade policies remain the order of the day. Biden's irritation with London's inability to solve its "Irish question" after Brexit has also played a role.

"US trade policies have become fairly unsentimental, self-interested and protectionist in tendency. And if they negotiate trade agreements at all they prefer larger partners with bigger markets, such as the EU," said former EU diplomat Albrecht Rothacher.

What about US companies?

US businesses are losing confidence in the UK as a place to invest in as a result of Brexit, rising corporate taxes and a year of political turmoil in London, according to a recent survey by BritishAmerican Business and consultant firm Bain & Company.

The survey of 56 US companies operating in Britain showed confidence in the UK falling for a third consecutive year.

Responding to the survey, the UK Department for Business and Trade said it was "not supported by the facts," noting that the US had been the UK's largest single investor for the last two decades.

What's the 'Atlantic Declaration?'

The declaration pledges to ease some trade barriers, strengthen defense industry links and set up a data protection deal. It also includes an agreement to collaborate on key industries — AI, 5G and 6G telecoms, quantum computing, semiconductors and engineering biology — and work on a trade pact on critical minerals, those used to make electric vehicles, solar panels, flatscreen TVs and so on.

The two nations also pledged to negotiate an agreement that would allow some British firms to access tax credits available under the US Inflation Reduction Act, a major climate and health care law passed in 2022.

Why does it matter?

Size and optics. For the UK, the declaration matters far more than for the US, though. About 12% of goods exports from the UK are shipped to the US, making it the country's largest export destination. 

The UK is the single largest European investor in the US, worth half a trillion dollars in 2019. UK firms employ 1.3 million Americans. A PwC survey last July ranked the UK as the most important market for US business leaders, overtaking China.

US foreign direct investments in the UK were valued at roughly $860 billion (€789 billion) in 2022. The UK was the seventh-largest goods export market for the US in 2022.

What free trade deals has the UK signed post-Brexit?

The UK left the European Union in 2020, including the single market and customs union.

Before Brexit, the UK was part of any trade deal the EU had with another country.

The UK now has trade deals with 71 countries, including many "rollover" agreements that carried over the previous relationships the UK had with countries as an EU member. 

A free trade deal with Japan was signed in October 2020, UK's first major trade agreement since leaving the EU.

How Brexit is threatening peace in Northern Ireland

The UK signed a free trade deal with Australia in 2021 and New Zealand in February 2022. Talks with India began in early 2022, although no agreement has yet been reached.

A digital trade agreement with Singapore entered into force in June 2022 and a similar agreement with Ukraine was signed this March. Also in March, the UK announced an agreement to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.

Meanwhile, the UK has also adopted a state-level approach in the US and has signed memorandums of understanding with three US states: Indiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. The UK is discussing future agreements with Utah, Texas and California.

Earlier this year, the UK's ex-trade minister Penny Mordaunt claimed US state-level deals would pave the way for nationwide talks with the White House.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey

Head shot of a man (Jo Harper) with grey hair and brown eyes
Jo Harper Journalist and author specializing in Poland