Grandstand. On June 23, 2016, UK voters voted in a referendum to withdraw from the European Union. On Christmas Eve 2020, after four and a half years of negotiations, a commercial and cooperation agreement was finally reached that defined the terms of this withdrawal.
The questions raised during discussions about the terms of Brexit bear striking similarities to the debates that animated trade negotiations between Britain and the United States after the latter gained its independence in 1783.
Remembering these events and putting them in parallel seems like a good way, if any, to illustrate how history remembers in the present, but also how it warns about the future.
A free trade agreement
The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, marked the recognition of the independence of the United States of America by Great Britain. On a commercial level, British policy towards its thirteen former colonies was at first conciliatory. It changed abruptly from June 1784, when Charles Jenkinson (1727-1808), better known as the first Earl of Liverpool, assumed the position of president of the Board of Commerce (Commission du Commerce, equivalent to a ministry of commerce).
In the following decade, political and trade tensions increased between the two countries. To avoid an armed conflict with his former colonial power, George Washington decided in 1794 to send John Jay, Chief Justice, to London to negotiate a “treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation”. Like the Brexit negotiations, the Treaty of London, signed on November 19, 1794, aimed to resolve certain issues, in particular trade, between two previously economically integrated territories.
An essential feature of the London Treaty was that it was essentially a free trade agreement. John Jay, as well as William Wyndham Grenville, the British Foreign Secretary Jay was negotiating with, were in favor of free trade. They mutually agreed to apply the most favored nation clause to the assets of the other party, a clause by which each country agrees to apply the best conditions granted to a third country to the assets of the other.
The only real violation of freedom of trade concerned trade with the West Indies, which remained inaccessible to American ships exceeding 70 tons. The December 23, 2020 agreement between London and Brussels is also a free trade agreement that respects the rules generally recommended by the World Trade Organization (WTO), in particular the most-favored-nation clause.
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