By William James
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will submit a request to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc grouping 11 countries before it has published an assessment of the benefits of membership, British officials told Reuters.
The move is likely to increase opposition fears that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government is using Britain's exit from the European Union to drive through policy in an opaque way and will rush into trade deals, with unintended consequences.
Since leaving the EU, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The analysis of the economic impact of joining the CPTPP will now be published after a formal accession request, contrary to an earlier promise by the government to publish it before application.
The documents will be made public before formal negotiations begin.
An official with knowledge of the schedule confirmed the publication plan but said the government viewed the formal start of the talks, not application, as the most important moment.
"It goes without saying we're not going to do a deal that crosses any red lines, or goes contrary to our negotiating objectives," the official, who declined to be named, said. "Parliament will get full scrutiny."
The Department for International Trade said it was acting in line with its transparency commitments by publishing the documents before talks begin.
"The government is committed to transparency and will ensure that parliamentarians, UK citizens and businesses have access to information on our trade negotiations," a spokeswoman said.
The main opposition Labour Party said the decision to join the bloc was too important to be pushed through without voters' knowledge or consent.
"The government is rushing into the process of joining the CPTPP with no public mandate, and barely any proper discussion with business or civil society," Labour's trade policy chief, Emily Thornberry, told Reuters.
DEMAND FOR PUBLIC DEBATE
Trade minister Liz Truss said last week she would submit a formal request to join the CPTPP "shortly".
Once that has been submitted, the bloc forms a working group which conducts negotiations to work out the terms of a possible accession. A final report from this working group is then presented to the bloc's commission for approval.
A June 2020 British government policy paper said: "Before applying, we will publish an outline approach and a scoping assessment setting out our negotiating objectives and the economic impact and benefits of accession."
Full membership of the CPTPP would offer better Britain access to economies that represent around 13% of global economic output.
Citing low levels of understanding about the CPTPP, Labour said the government needed to reopen a 2018 consultation on the subject and explain what membership means to the public.
"Otherwise people will rightly ask why we have been through five years of division and rancour in this country over leaving a trade bloc with our closest neighbours (the EU) only to join another one on the other side of the world with no public debate at all," Thornberry said.
(Reporting by William James, Editing by Timothy Heritage)