The United States and Britain launched formal negotiations on a free trade agreement on Tuesday, vowing to work quickly to seal a deal that could counter the massive drag of the coronavirus pandemic on trade flows and the two allies’ economies.
The talks, to be conducted virtually, will involve over 300 U.S. and UK staff and officials in nearly 30 negotiating groups, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and UK trade minister Liz Truss said in a joint statement.
“We will undertake negotiations at an accelerated pace and have committed the resources necessary to progress at a fast pace,” they said.
“A Free Trade Agreement would contribute to the long-term health of our economies, which is vitally important as we recover from the challenges posed by COVID-19,” the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The first round of talks began as new U.S. data showed a record drop in U.S. exports and a contraction in the vast U.S. service sector for the first time in over a decade.
It is Washington’s first major new trade negotiation in 2020. London has also been working out trade terms with the European Union following its exit from the bloc in January.
London’s goal was to expeditiously complete both negotiations and there could be a positive dynamic between them, even though they are being headed by different lead negotiators, one UK official told journalists in a background briefing.
British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters it was “a very good sign of confidence in economic recovery” that the two countries were moving ahead with the talks.
Lighthizer, who has named the UK trade talks one of his top priorities for 2020, published objectives more than a year ago that sought full access for U.S. agricultural products and reduced tariffs for U.S. manufactured goods.
Stung by shortages of medical equipment and drugs during the pandemic, both countries are seeking to shift some supply chains away from China.