Business & trade, Europe, Top Stories

Inside the UK’s $7.5 million legal battle plan for a US free trade deal

When US-UK trade talks kicked off last month, Politico described them as a David versus Goliath battle pitching the $2.9 trillion British economy represented by relative neophyte Liz Truss against a US giant almost eight times its size with veteran trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer at the helm.

But the British have a trump card.

Faced with the daunting challenge of reaching a favorable free trade deal that can help the United Kingdom negotiate a better break with the European Union and move past the coronavirus-induced downturn, the British Department for International Trade announced in March that it had hired London-based multinational law firm Linklaters for £6 million, or about $7.5 million. Now new filings disclosed under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reveal that Linklaters in turn has hired five US law firms, each with their own legal specialty, to help with negotiations.

They are:

By Christine Suh / Foreign Lobby Report

Separately, the trade department also signed a $180,000, 12-month contract in March with New York marketing and advertising firm Finn Partners to “promote the UK’s innovation and future opportunities to collaborate with North American businesses in the UK facing businesses and the trade and investment market.” The contract can be extended twice, for a total of $540,000.

The British government estimates a free trade deal would give the economy a £3.4 billion boost ($3.4 billion), or about 0.1 %, and increase two-way trade by £15.3 billion ($19.5 billion). Of greater value is the diplomatic lift if the UK can secure generous terms with its largest bilateral trading partner after leaving the EU.

Although the firms were retained for legal work that does not have to be publicly reported under FARA, most have elected to disclose their hiring (Sidley Austin is the lone standout for now). The filings go into considerable detail about the role of each firm, including not only which area of the negotiations each will focus on but even spelling out their estimated contribution to the overall effort:

By Christine Suh / Foreign Lobby Report

Asked for comment about the UK’s priorities for a trade deal with the US, the trade department directed Foreign Lobby Report to a 184-page government report. It details priorities including lower tariffs for ceramics, cars and agricultural products; freedom of movement and mutual recognition of qualifications for professionals such as lawyers and accountants; protecting the National Health Service; and safeguarding food safety and animal welfare standards.

The department also to March comments by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Truss.

“Striking ambitious free trade agreements with our partners around the world is one of the key opportunities of Britain becoming an independent trading nation once again,” Truss said at the time. “This deal with our biggest single trading partner will cut red tape for our small businesses, cut tariffs for our great products from dairy to cars and increase growth in all four nations.”