By William Schomberg
LONDON (Reuters) – After last month’s Brexit vote, Britain faces the challenge of carving out trade deals with the rest of the world, but a key thing is missing: a strong team of trade negotiators.
London is even resorting to hiring foreign negotiators as it prepares for years of talks with its major trading partners in Europe and with some of the world’s biggest economies beyond.
The government is also trying to rehire retired civil servants familiar with the complexities of free trade agreements after voters decided to leave the EU last month.
The European Commission hammers out trade deals on behalf of EU countries, meaning Britain has not had its own negotiators since it joined the bloc in 1973. That leaves it with a staffing problem in a priority area for new prime minister Theresa May.
The government says there is no conflict between hiring foreign negotiators and the promises of the referendum’s “Leave” campaign to take control over immigration.
“I see no reason why we wouldn’t hire people who were non-British if they were the best people to do the job,” foreign minister, Philip Hammond, said on Tuesday.
“Clearly one would not want to hire a citizen of another country to negotiate a trade deal with that country. But having entered that caveat I would hope that we would put together the best and most capable teams from wherever.”
Britain is aiming to strike deals not only with the EU but also other economies such as the United States, India and China, all of which have large and experienced trade negotiating teams.
In another part of its push, experts with law firms, consultancies and industrial groups are being offered secondments to help create the firepower London needs.
Britain’s Business Ministry, which has around 40 trade specialists, wants to have as many as 300 experts in place by the end of 2016, Business Minister Sajid Javid said last week as he headed for preliminary talks about a trade deal with India.
Only a few of the 55 British officials in the European Commission’s trade department in Brussels have worked on negotiations, offering a limited recruitment pool but one which London might well tap into.
A senior EU official said he believed that Britons who have been involved in EU trade negotiations would be able to “name their price” in Westminster.
A Brussels diplomat from a non-European country said his government had been approached by British officials looking for negotiating talent. “But they were looking for something like 300 people. There’s no way we can help with that,” the diplomat said. “They’re going to have to take some time to build up their expertise.”
Trade negotiators have skills that are hard to acquire quickly. Typically, they are given marching orders by politicians on much they can give away in terms of lower barriers to trade and investment.
The negotiators must then stick to those instructions while trying to coax concessions from their peers on the other side of the table, meaning trade talks often take years to complete.
Britain will also need to create and find staff for a new office to investigate possible dumping of goods in the country, a separate and equally complex discipline within international trade, Stephen Adams, a partner with consultancy Global Counsel.
May has said she will not start the two-year process for Britain’s exit from the EU this year. It is unclear if the EU will agree to begin talks about its new trade ties with Britain before the exit is complete.
Countries outside the bloc are unlikely to sit down for detailed negotiations with Britain until they know the terms of its new EU deal, raising the prospect of negotiations stretching out for years to come.
(Additional reporting by Alastair MacDonald in Brussels; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)