British Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed warnings today that the EU’s troubled free trade deal with Canada raised serious questions about whether London could strike a similar agreement after Brexit.
The EU-Canadian deal, which has been seven years in the making, was due to be finalised at the European Union summit but risks collapsing following opposition from a Belgian regional government.
May has not yet outlined her strategy for implementing the June vote to leave the EU, but has left open the possibility that Britain might leave the bloc’s single market and replace it with a new trade arrangement.
After her first EU summit concluded today, she said she supported the Canadian deal but added: “We’re not looking to replicate a model that somebody else has.”
May said today that negotiations “will take time, there will be difficult moments, it will need some give and take”, but told reporters she was “optimistic” that a deal could be struck.
The Conservative leader is expected to start the formal two-year exit process by the end of March, putting Britain on course to leave the EU by early 2019.
The near-collapse of the EU-Canada deal has however prompted fears for an eventual British deal.
“If the EU does not succeed in agreeing a commercial or economic treaty with Canada, it will be difficult to do so with Britain,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel warned.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said last week that the Canadian deal was the only model for a future pact between the EU and post-Brexit Britain, more so than Norwegian or Swiss models that have been previously touted.
May has said she wants to control immigration and remove Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice — both requirements of single market membership.
At her first bilateral meeting with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker today, May repeated her desire for immigration controls and a “positive outcome” for trade in goods and services, her spokeswoman said.
Britain cannot begin trade talks with non-EU countries until it has left, prompting concern among businesses that it could leave the single market with no new deals in place.
“I’ve been clear the UK has been discussing our future trading relationship with third countries,” May told a press conference shortly before the Juncker talks.
“This will not undermine the EU’s trade agenda, it is not even in competition with it. We will continue to help the EU reach those important trade agreements.
“It’s about seizing the opportunities of Brexit and forging an ambitious and optimistic new role for Britain in the world.”