Trump's Relationship With the U.K. Could Hinge on Dirty Chicken and a Delayed Trade Deal

Trump Theresa May
President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. Trump said on July 25 he's working on an "exciting" trade deal with the U.K. John MACDOUGALL/Reuters

Donald Trump has big plans with Britain, he says. The president tweeted Tuesday that he is "working on major Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. Could be very big & exciting. JOBS!" (The punctuation, as you can probably tell, is POTUS's own.)

But based on expert views, the likely progress of Brexit and past trans-Atlantic trading experience, Trump is probably quite some way from getting anything you could call "big and exciting."

The first problem? Timing. Though Britain voted to leave the European Union last year, it remains a member while it sorts out its terms of exit from the bloc. And while Britain is a member of the EU, it can't formally negotiate its own separate trade deals, though it can hold informal talks—Britain's international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was in Washington this week, for example.

That means a trade deal with the U.S. can't be signed until at least 2019, the scheduled departure date for Britain under the EU's negotiating rules. But it could be even later. British government officials have acknowledged that the country may well need a period of transition lasting up to three years, with different aspects of its EU membership phased out one by one. Under that arrangement, it would only be able to sign the deal at whatever point in that three-year period it was no longer covered by the terms of the EU's Customs Union trade area.

Then there are the sorts of thorny regulatory squabbles that color any trade deal. Often, these sound dry on the page but suddenly turn out to provoke all kinds of unmanageable emotions among the public.

This week in Britain, there's been the perfect example: The U.K. press is getting in a flap about chicken. In the U.S., farmers wash their poultry with chlorine. In Europe, they don't do that. It's considered likely that the U.S. would demand Britain open up its market to chlorine-washed chicken as part of any trade deal, and BuzzFeed reported back in February that the American farming lobby was pushing for it.

Europeans don't wash their chicken in chlorine because of fears it allows farmers to be less hygienic at earlier stages of the poultry-raising process; any nasty bugs and germs can just be washed off by chemicals at the end. Now the U.K. government is split on whether the U.K. would ever allow the product in. The prime minister's office won't rule it out; the environment secretary says no.

But the point is that if just one of potentially dozens of different food regulations that a U.S.-U.K. negotiation would tackle causes this much fuss, it raises questions about the U.K.'s ability to get a palatable deal finalized soon after Brexit.

Which brings us to the last point. As Samuel Lowe, a trade expert at the charity Friends of the Earth, explained in a blog in March, any trade deal with the U.S. would aim to make regulations in America and Britain more similar to each other. But America's regulations are very different from the EU's—that's why the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership got nowhere. In his words, that means deciding which regulatory "superpower"—the U.S. or the EU—Britain aligns with, and which one it wants to make trade easier with.

So a far-reaching U.S. trade deal might make it much harder for Britain to trade with the EU. But even after Brexit, the EU is likely to be Britain's biggest market. So it's far from certain the U.K. would sign up to something that significant (or that "big and exciting," as Trump might say).

Nobody here has a crystal ball. The U.K. and the U.S. might strike a great, far-reaching deal. But the chances of it being both genuinely significant and happening anytime soon are very slim.