WASHINGTON—The U.K.’s top trade official sought to assure Americans on Monday that London wants to preserve and advance close economic ties as the country moves to exit the European Union.
Liam Fox, the newly installed international trade secretary, began a three-day visit to address concerns among some U.S. officials and business leaders that Britain would withdraw economically and strategically on both sides of the Atlantic.
In an interview, Mr. Fox argued that Britons would have the ability to negotiate closer trade and economic links with the U.S. and other countries after the Brexit process is complete. As part of the EU, it is one voice among more than two dozen members represented in Brussels.
“The first thing is to dispel the idea that Britain leaving the European Union was somehow an anti-free market decision,” Mr. Fox said. “In fact it was the reverse: In my view, it was about Britain becoming a much more outward-looking country.”
The U.K can’t sign trade agreements with other countries while it is still part of the EU, and London hasn’t issued the formal notification to start negotiations on leaving—a process that could take two years. The timing is still being debated by the new Conservative government, but early next year could be best since the U.K. wants to figure out its new relationships before general elections in 2020, Mr. Fox said.
On Monday, Mr. Fox met Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman and business leaders at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Fox will also visit Chicago and Los Angeles this week, meeting executives at Boeing and attending business forums with other executives.
The visit comes in a tense year as British voters are realigning the country’s ties to the continent, nationalist politicians are gaining ground in some European countries and American voters are questioning the postwar international trade framework and U.S. immigration policy, prodded by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Mr. Fox said Britons voted to reject government authority in Brussels, especially the EU’s rules on free movement of labor across borders, but not to rethink the country’s centuries-old role in the international trading system.
By contrast, American politics could be more of a problem for free trade since both candidates have voiced skepticism of trade’s economic benefits and rejected PresidentBarack Obama’s signature Pacific trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
“I think on both sides of this election campaign we would very much welcome hearing more free-trade voices,” Mr. Fox said.
He said London would probably seek to enter a free-trade agreement with the EU rather than a closer “customs union” that could restrict its ability to negotiate lower tariffs with other trading partners.
The U.S. and EU are currently working on a trade agreement, and officials in London, Washington and Brussels have said the U.K. could join separately at some point. The proposed U.S.-EU framework, known as TTIP, faces significant political hurdles.
Messrs. Fox and Froman have also discussed the idea of Britain joining the 12-nation TPP, although that agreement faces an uphill battle in Congress and staunch opposition from both parties in the election season.
Finally, the U.S. and U.K. could work toward a bilateral trade agreement, something Republican congressional leaders and Obama administration officials have explored.
“We are absolutely prepared to engage in conversations because it would be irresponsible not to,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a news conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last week.
The U.S. is the U.K.’s single biggest export market, accounting for £100 billion ($132 billion), or around 20%, of its £510 billion of goods and services exports in 2015, according to official data. Top exports include drugs, aircraft components and automobiles; services account for more than half.
“It’s not a surprise that we are already seeing these discussions happening, given how close the U.K. and U.S. are, both economically and politically,” said Emanuel Adam,director of policy and trade at British American Business, which promotes closer commercial ties between U.S. and U.K. firms.
Completing a free-trade deal would likely mean not only reducing or eliminating any tariffs on goods but also dismantling services barriers and regulatory impediments to trade, which can be daunting.
“It’s going to be much, much trickier to come to an agreement on that front,” said Sam Bowman, executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank based in London.
As the bigger partner, the U.S. would probably have the upper hand in negotiations, saidStephen Booth, a co-director at think tank Open Europe.
Jeff Lewis, managing director of Resultz Ltd., a Manchester, England-based provider of training courses for business executives, said a trade deal could potentially be a big benefit for his firm as he currently faces import duties in the U.S.
“It would be beneficial because our costs would be more competitive,” he said.
Martin Sorrell, group chief executive of London-based advertising giant WPP PLC, said he’d welcome a trade deal between the two countries. “Any further trade liberalization would help our clients and therefore us,” he said.
—Jenny Gross in London contributed to this article.
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