Recently, the UK’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox stated that the UK is considering joining the Comprehensive and Progressive

Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“CPTPP” or “CPTPP11“). While this gave rise to excitement among CPTPP proponents, and it is technically feasible, various factors would likely make it unlikely in the short term.

UK Exploring Options Post Brexit

It is good news that the UK is showing interest in joining the CPTPP, even if only because it demonstrates that the CPTPP is alive and well. The idea of the UK joining the CPTPP was floated shortly after the Brexit vote and has been simmering at various levels since. As several commentators have already pointed out, there are no legal restrictions in the trade agreement for adding new members outside of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s original 12 members (“TPP12“), the CPTPP11, or any other countries.

Politics at Home

However, there are some serious obstacles to the UK joining the CPTPP at this point in time. First, the UK will remain a member of the EU until 29 March, 2019, and the UK is still working out the terms of its withdrawal from that arrangement. It would most likely lack the negotiating capacity until its withdrawal is complete to take on the CPTPP. Second, the UK would have to make a very attractive offer in terms of market access for the CPTPP members, and this does not seem politically sustainable within the UK for the moment. The BBC recently quoted Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy as stating “[i]f Brexit was about symbolically taking back control in these areas, then joining the TPP would do little to accomplish that.”

The Problem with Late Joiners and New Changes

The existing members may also be reluctant to allow the UK into the CPTPP talks at this point because of the previous experience with Japan. As the last member to join the TPP12, Japan’s entry dragged out negotiations for a few more years due to tough bilateral negotiations with the United States.

When President Trump withdrew from the TPP, it was relatively easy for the remaining 11 members to “suspend” the commitments that were a priority for America (for e.g. data exclusivity, copyright term extensions, freedom of association for labor unions, etc.). However, if new topics and disciplines need to be added to the agreement, then it would add another level of complexity that will take more time. For example, one suggestion from Canada during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (“APEC“) was to add a whole new chapter on gender issues, which would entail significant further negotiation. Opening up the agreement to allow UK demands on any new chapters would certainly handicap the CPTPP in moving forward with the agreement.

Finally, since the last APEC meeting in November 2017, Canada, which is currently busy with its own important NAFTA negotiations, has not been more active with the other parties including Japan. In fact, Japan recently stated that it is unclear why Canada is stalling and asked whether parties could move forward without Canada. The addition of another country would no doubt lead to further delays, putting the entire arrangement at risk.

So What’s Next?

It is more likely that the UK will have to wait until the CPTPP is signed and enters into force, and it has a better understanding of its post-EU status. The UK could then join as a new member, along with other aspirants such as Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia. While it is technically very easy to remove or freeze the parts that the United States was particularly keen on, it is more difficult to reach consensus on the additional deals that would have to be made to accommodate a new member the size of the UK. Notwithstanding the fact that the UK is unlikely to join now, its interest in the agreement helps to reaffirm the agreement’s significance and gives a welcome boost to the negotiators who are trying to get it over the finish line when the parties meet next week in Tokyo.