South African trade minister Rob Davies has met with Liam Fox
Eurocrats repeatedly refused to be drawn on whether they would attempt to punish the UK over its plans to start formal talks whilst it is still a member states, something which is strictly prohibited under EU treaties.
Yesterday South African trade minister Rob Davies vowed to begin negotiations on a pact as soon as possible, stating that he wanted “a predictable trade and investment environment for mutual benefit for both parties”.
He made the remarks following a meeting with Liam Fox, who revealed the pair had discussed how to “progress” Britain’s future economic relationship with one of Africa’s largest economies.
The issue over whether the UK can agree the terms of future trade deals whilst settling its divorce from the bloc is becoming an increasingly potent headache for Brussels.
EU spokesman Margaritas Schinas refused to be drawn on possible punishments for Britain
Theresa May has vowed to pursue a 'Global Britain' policy
Eurocrats have performed a series of verbal contortions in an attempt to bat away persistent questions about their stance on the issue, emboldening British ministers to press ahead with talks on the global stage.
And they refused to be drawn once again today in light of Mr Davies’ comments, reported in South African media, repeating their mantra that they do not deal in hypothetical scenarios.
But Brussels officials have tacitly softened their stance towards Britain in recent weeks, conceding that there is nothing in EU treaties to prevent Theresa May’s government from discussing trade with international partners.
One of the issues eurocrats face is that any enforcement action they could decide to initiate would probably take longer than two years to conclude, meaning Britain would already have left the bloc.
Once you leave the bloc you can negotiate any sort of international agreements you like
EU spokesman Margaritas Schinas
Asked about Mr Davies’ comments today, EU Commission chief spokesman Margaritas Schinas said: “International trade is an exclusive competence of the EU and as such there is nothing in the treaty that prevents member states from discussing trade.
“But being part of the EU means that you only can negotiate trade agreements as part of the bloc.”
However, he then added: “But of course, once you leave the bloc you can negotiate any sort of international agreements you like.”
Pressed further on the issue, he answered: “We don’t do if answers, we don’t do if questions. We have been equally clear on the different phases that trade discussions can have and can develop and I don’t think now that there is anything else to say.
“Our position on this issue has been widely repeated by practically everybody in the European Union.”
Greek official Mr Schinas was then grilled over whether or not the EU Commission plans to warn Britain about its conduct by sending an official letter to Downing Street.
Theresa May's 12 point Brexit plan
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Continued cooperation with the EU to tackle terrorism and international crime.
But he implied eurocrats will not, stating: “The respect of treaty obligations is inherent in EU law and is a cornerstone of our relationship with all our member states.”
Following the meeting with his South African counterpart, Mr Fox said described the former British colony as a “long-standing‚ strong and strategic ally for the United Kingdom in Africa and internationally”.
He said: “It is our largest export market in Africa, the largest economy in the southern Africa region and a fellow G20 member.
“South Africa is also the largest recipient of UK foreign direct investment in Africa. As we become an even more outward looking country‚ we will continue building on our relationship with South Africa.”
Britain is expected to begin talks on a number of high profile trade deals ahead of quitting the EU, with new US President Donald Trump particularly enthusiastic to strike a pact.
Major world economies including Australia, China, India and Mexico have also expressed interest in securing new economic relationships with Britain once it has left the bloc.