Theresa May has been accused of pursuing a “cut and paste” Brexit, after saying the EU’s free trade deals could form the basis of Britain’s agreements once it has left the bloc.
The Prime Minister, who is currently in Japan on a three-day trip to talk about post-Brexit trade and investment, said she wanted to use the trade agreement being finalised between Brussels and Tokyo as the starting point for a future pact with Britain.
But critics said the “absurd” approach “defied all logic” and had reduced the role of International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to being “left in a room with a photocopier”.
Mrs May said: “When we leave the European Union, there’s obviously a number of trade deals that the EU has with other countries and we are looking at the possibility of those being able to be brought over into trade deals with the United Kingdom.”
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The PM is expected to reiterate the UK’s commitment to a swift conclusion of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement during the trip.
She will also seek agreement from Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the UK and Japan should work to ensure that this deal can form the basis of a bilateral arrangement “quickly after Brexit.”
The trip comes as the latest round of Brexit talks continue in Brussels, with top EU figures issuing downbeat assessments about the state of the talks.
As a result of Brexit, Britain will have the opportunity to negotiate its own bespoke free trade deals with countries around the world.
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The UK can hold talks with other countries to lay the groundwork for post-Brexit free trade deals, but it cannot officially sign them until it has left the bloc.
Opponents have been swift to point out that the approach of basing the deals on current EU arrangements does not match the lofty rhetoric of the EU referendum campaign.
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said: “Brexiteers promised a new dawn of improved trade deals across the world. But rather than jet-setting around the globe, Liam Fox might as well be left in a room with a photocopier.
“The Government’s Brexit strategy now defies all logic. It is not even asking Japan for a bespoke trade deal. India has already told us they won’t give us one. The Government should not be surprised if China says the same.
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“Far from bagging lots of new trade deals, the Government is simply trying to cut and paste our existing arrangements. Its Brexit strategy has just reached new levels of absurdity.”
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, a supporter of the pro-EU campaign group Open Britain, echoed this line of attack.
He said: “Leave campaigners like Boris Johnson told us that a global Britain needed to leave the EU to sign new and better trade deals, but it turns out the best the Government is aiming for is to copy and paste deals we already have through our membership of the EU.
“The Government’s position is absurd. They are pulling out of the Customs Union, which will damage our economy, in order to sign trade deals which will be no better – and could easily be worse – than the ones we have now.”
Also high on the agenda during the PM’s trip to Japan is the North Korea crisis. Mrs May has called on China to “do everything it can” to apply more pressure on Pyongyang over its “illegal” and “outrageous” missile tests.