Under Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK has been active in pursuing bilateral trade agreements in the run-up to its exit from the EU. Photo: Reuters, Kirsty Wigglesworth

Britain is looking at ways to replicate the trade deals that the European Union has with countries outside the bloc, such as Japan, when it exits the EU in March 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday at the start of a trip to Tokyo.

The freedom to strike new trade deals independently of the EU has been highlighted by the government as a major benefit of Brexit, but businesses have repeatedly voiced concerns about how existing trade relationships will work after leaving the bloc.

Speaking on a business trip to Japan designed to reassure investors that the British economy will flourish after Brexit, May indicated that the first step in recasting Britain as a world leader in free trade would be to copy EU trade agreements.

“There’s obviously a number of trade deals that the EU has with other countries, and we are looking at the possibility of those being able to be brought over into, certainly initially, trade deals with the United Kingdom,” May told reporters on her way to meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“I think we will give businesses certainty, which is what business wants at the point at which we leave.”

“I think we will give businesses certainty, which is what business wants at the point at which we leave.”

The EU has trade deals with external countries like Switzerland and South Korea, and is currently finalising its own deal with Japan.

Until Britain’s EU membership ends it is unable to agree trade deals with external countries, and it is unclear how easily or quickly an already-stretched British civil service could transpose EU deals into bilateral trade agreements.

The position on trade is consistent with May’s negotiating stance on several central issues of Brexit talks with Brussels: to closely replicate many of the existing arrangements Britain has as an EU state and then gradually introduce change.

That has drawn criticism from eurosceptics who want to make a clean break with the EU, and EU officials who say Britain is looking to keep the benefits of membership without incurring the associated costs.

May said she was pushing for the completion of an EU-Japan trade deal, which could then be used as a model for a future British-Japan trading agreement.

“We have been one of the member states sitting around the EU table that have been pressing the EU to move forward on this deal with Japan. We think this is an important deal for the EU,” she said.

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