As recorded in Wednesday’s BrexitCentral new round-up, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) and Chris Coons (Democrat-Delaware) have taken the lead in launching the Senate UK Trade Caucus, aimed at building congressional support for a bilateral trade agreement between the U.S. and Britain. This is a credit to both Senators Portman and Coons, and a major step forward for Anglo-American trade relations.
Caucuses in the U.S. Senate are like all-party parliamentary groups in the House of Commons. They stimulate interest, build cross-party support, serve as venues for collaboration, and develop ideas that later take legislative form. Of course, the responsibility for actually negotiating trade agreements belongs to the Executive Branch. But in the U.S., Congress plays a vital role in this process, by setting the terms on which the President negotiates, by guiding and encouraging the Executive, and by voting on the agreement. In trade, the President cannot do much permanently without Congress.
The leadership of the UK Trade Caucus makes it particularly significant. Delaware, a small and beautiful state on the U.S.’s Eastern seaboard, has an outsized importance as a great corporate centre. Senator Coons, who was elected to his first full six-year term in 2016, serves on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Portman, from the great Midwestern farming and industrial state of Ohio – I’m a Buckeye myself, as Ohioans are known – served as President George W. Bush’s US Trade Representative. No one in the Senate has more direct experience with and personal knowledge of trade negotiations than Senator Portman, and nothing about this Caucus heartens me more its leadership.
I have the distinct sense that Britain isn’t fully aware just how much U.S. interest in it has been stirred by Brexit. There was no point in having a Senate caucus on UK trade before the Brexit vote: now there is very definitely a point. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn’t need a U.S.-UK Business Council until Britain voted to leave the EU: now it needs one, and it’s got one.
Of course, much U.S. coverage of Britain and Brexit is whining, tedious, and negative. You can always rely on the New York Times — the Guardian of the United States — to argue that anyone who supported Brexit is as hypocritical as they are stupid. But as in Britain, once you get away from the Remainer core for whom all alternatives to the EU are self-evidently foolish, people in the U.S. can see Brexit for the opportunity it is.
Part of that, of course, is a trading opportunity. As Senator Portman put it, we have the opportunity to negotiate a “mutually-beneficial trade agreement” that also reaffirms the wider Anglo-American alliance and partnership. Or, as his colleague Senator Coons rightly says, the fact that thousands of American businesses already depend on “fair and open trade with the UK” makes it all the more important to negotiate a deal. Those considerations alone make it right for the US to make “a unified effort to push for an expeditious agreement,” as the Senators jointly put. But there is more to it than just that.
It’s not every day that the world’s fifth or sixth largest economy has the chance to draw up its trade policy from scratch. It’s especially not every day when that great economy is one of the most law-abiding, open, and historically liberal nations in the world. And it’s even less every day when that nation is a structural importer of food and an exporter of services, meaning that it is ideally – historically and for reasons of self-interest – suited to take a liberal position on opposing restraints on trade in both areas. That’s important in agriculture but vital in services, which are the future of all our economies and all trade negotiations. And when the leading advocates of that nation’s independence from the EU are – like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis and many more – also vigorous free traders, the opportunities should be manifest.
Brexit is not the “populism” – a word rarely defined with much precision, but which is always a negative – or the Euroscepticism of the losers like Italy. It’s the reaction of a nation that has the temerity to believe that it has the ability to govern itself. It’s the reaction of a nation that believes it can improve its situation. If you are looking around the world in the hopes of finding a reaction to slow growth and mass migration that is liberal – that is eager to respond not by reducing trade but by expanding it – then you have no better hope than Great Britain. And the prospect of a U.S.-UK FTA is a vital part of that.
There have been many laudable expressions of American desire to negotiate with Britain, the Portman-Coons caucus now chief among them. I only wish the U.S. – especially the Executive Branch – would do more to make it clear to both the UK and the EU that we want Brexit to fully respect the democratic result of the referendum, and to be settled amicably with all reasonable speed. The U.S. interest is not simply about securing a Britain that can negotiate with the U.S. It rests fundamentally in a Britain that is not bound hand and foot to the EU’s restrictive, dirigiste regulatory model, and that is free to advance its own interests flexibly, through sovereign legislation and negotiations with all its partners, as it sees fit.
If the UK Trade Caucus can build support not just for the vital free trade agreement between the U.S. and Britain, but for active US diplomacy that reflects this broader vision, it will do an enormous service.
The caucus’s first steps are likely to be to seek wider support in the Senate; to thank the Executive Branch for its support for closer and freer trade ties between the U.S. and the UK, and to urge them to press ahead energetically. All of that is very valuable. But the biggest prize is Britain’s liberation from the EU – not to make it the servant of American interests, but to add a new, liberal player to debates on trade, regulation, and standards in a world increasingly squeezed between the dirigiste EU and the authoritarian People’s Republic of China.
That would be a great gain for all of us – including Americans and Britons alike. The Portman-Coons caucus offers, I believe, a new and influential ally in that cause.
This piece originally appeared in Brexit Central