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LONDON — It was all meant to happen in early March.
Negotiators from the 11 nations that make up the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) gathered on the palm-lined Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc with their U.K. counterparts, led by Britain’s chief negotiator Graham Zebedee, for a week-long summit. After 18 months of talks, the U.K. was on the verge of becoming the trade bloc’s first new member since its formation in 2018.
CPTPP nations had watched with concern the long-running dispute between the U.K. and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol on post-Brexit trading arrangements. But with the replacement Windsor Framework unveiled amid much fanfare on February 27 — just in time for the first day of talks — everything was falling into place for an agreement in principle on U.K. accession.
But at the 11th hour, an issue that had lingered throughout the negotiations burst to the fore.
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Britain had already agreed to liberalize tariffs on beef and sheep meat in separate free trade deals with CPTPP nations Australia and New Zealand. Now Canada — which had been pressing the U.K. to overturn its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef — wanted similar access.
With Canada already engaged in its own bilateral free trade negotiations with the U.K., it used its added leverage to seek last-minute concessions, said a person familiar with what was discussed. The U.K. insists its ban on hormone-treated beef remains absolute.
The 11th-hour confrontation became “sour indeed,” said a diplomat from a CPTPP member country. “The meeting in Vietnam ended with all the other participants basically throwing their hands in the air saying Canada and [the] U.K. must sort out their differences bilaterally,” said a second person briefed on the talks.
But sort them they did. While visiting the U.K. with a business delegation, Canadian trade chief Mary Ng broke bread with her U.K. counterpart Kemi Badenoch. The two had already developed a good rapport, with a January meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos overrunning by 30 minutes. Over dinner in London they “tackled some of the remaining issues” and were at last “wrapping up final negotiations” on market access, a senior Canadian official said after the rendezvous. That meeting, they said, broke the impasse.
Details of the final agreement were closely held. But two people briefed on the conversation said Canada agreed to deal with its demands over beef in the separate bilateral talks with the U.K. — clearing the path for Britain’s accession and deferring the row for another day, and another forum.
“With Secretary Badenoch we had our usual bilateral meeting to talk about a whole bunch of things around Canada-U.K.,” Ng said in an interview with POLITICO Thursday. “But I would also say it’s no coincidence that two weeks after that really good visit, we are also here at the point of conclusion.”
Canada, Ng insisted, had in fact been a key proponent of U.K. accession. “Canada was the first one to say absolutely, we believe you can meet these high standards, and we will support you, and we’ll get around the negotiating table and do that work,” she said. The U.K. has agreed to a total quota of 13 kilotonnes of beef from the CPTPP bloc per year a decade after joining.
At midnight U.K. time Thursday, Badenoch held a phone call with fellow ministers from CPTPP nations, formally bringing talks to an end. Following in the footsteps of Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada, the U.K. will become the CPTPP ‘s 12th member.
The U.K. had first announced its bid to enter CPTPP in June 2021, with formal talks beginning two months later — but in truth, conversations around joining the trade bloc had started long before.
Crawford Falconer, the U.K.’s chief negotiator who heads the profession in the civil service, is seen by colleagues and trade experts as pivotal in constructing Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal strategy — with a clear view to CPTPP accession. Earlier this year, Falconer told POLITICO that he plans to return to his native New Zealand after the U.K.’s CPTPP accession and free trade deal with India are complete, believing that to be a logical endpoint to his tenure.
Working with successive secretaries of state, Falconer, a straight-talking Kiwi who joined the former department for international trade (DIT) in 2017, had helped shape the all-important sequencing of Britain’s free trade deals. The U.K. first renegotiated its deal with Japan, a key CPTPP member who helped broker Britain’s accession. The Australia and New Zealand pacts swiftly followed.
“Given the similarity in the structure and content of both agreements with the CPTPP, these could be seen as ‘dry runs’ for the U.K. joining,” noted James Manning, a former U.K. trade negotiator who worked on the Australia deal, now at FTI Consulting.
Liam Fox, the first DIT secretary of state who served from 2016-2019, was also keen on Britain joining CPTPP, as was his successor Liz Truss. Indeed, former prime minister Theresa May and her top aide Gavin Barwell would “slightly take the mickey” out of Fox in meetings over his enthusiasm for the trade agreement, an ex-department official said.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan picked up the mantle from Truss after her appointment as trade secretary in September 2021. In keeping with the department’s old habit of setting optimistic deadlines for future trade deals, Trevelyan told the Spectator last June that she would like to have CPTPP accession “as a Christmas present.”
But a combination of factors left Trevelyan empty-handed, not least Malaysia finally ratifying its own accession to the bloc, adding an extra nation with whom the U.K. would need to negotiate terms (including on imports of palm oil). A period of profound political flux in the U.K. also delayed the process, as a succession of prime ministers came and went.
Finally, Badenoch took on the brief in September 2022. Her early virtual meetings with CPTPP ministers yielded little progress, so Badenoch prioritized building relationships, meeting counterparts including New Zealand’s Damien O’Connor at Davos and becoming the first U.K. trade chief to visit Mexico since 2017.
“In this part of the world, you need to come and build relationships — and she came and she met her oppo,” said Spencer Mahony, the U.K.’s deputy trade commissioner to Latin America and the Caribbean. “They had really good conversations, and it helped move us along in a really, really positive way.”
Even in the closing stages, key sticking points remained. “Wary” of the “precedent-setting nature” of Britain’s accession — with China among those in the queue hoping to join CPTPP — members were insistent Britain meet the bloc’s market access offers, a government official from one such nation said.
But with these concerns addressed, the beef impasse resolved, and a new deal for trading arrangements in Northern Ireland secured, the final hurdles to U.K. accession were cleared.
While Britain already has bilateral deals with most CPTPP members, securing accession to the wider bloc is arguably its most notable trade achievement since leaving the EU — and marks the end of a significant chapter in its fledgling free trade agenda.
“This is an important moment for the U.K.,” said Badenoch, early Friday morning. “Our accession to CPTPP sends a powerful signal that the U.K. is open for business, and using our post-Brexit freedoms to reach out to new markets around the world.”
Douglas Busvine contributed reporting.