By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON, Jan 13 (Reuters) - New Zealand will seek to agree a free trade deal with Britain as soon as possible after Brexit, Prime Minister Bill English said on Friday after talks with British leader Theresa May in London.
Britain is not able to sign trade deals with third countries while it remains a member of the European Union, but the government has said it is keen to start preparatory work so agreements can be reached quickly after it leaves.
“We are ready to negotiate a high-quality free trade agreement with the UK when it is in a position to do so,” English said at a news conference. “We already have a strong and diversified trading relationship with the UK and a free trade agreement will build on that.”
Britain is New Zealand’s fifth-largest bilateral trading partner, and New Zealand imported goods and services worth 1.1 billion pounds ($1.34 billion) from Britain in 2015.
During a visit to Brussels earlier this week, English said the EU and New Zealand also aimed to launch free trade negotiations as soon as possible.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said talks with New Zealand could be wrapped up far more quickly than is normal, perhaps in just two to three years.
At a separate briefing with reporters later on Friday, English said he expected the New Zealand-EU deal to be completed before a New Zealand-Britain agreement. He also said New Zealand could not get in to too much detail with Britain yet.
“It is difficult to formulate what kind of agreement we would have until it is clear what position the UK is in at the end of Brexit,” he said.
May said that while Britain remained in the EU, it would work to support an EU-New Zealand trade deal, while also making preparations for a future “bold new” bilateral agreement.
Last year Britain and New Zealand agreed to set up regular trade policy talks and May said trade minister Liam Fox would visit New Zealand in the coming months to launch these discussions.
May, who has said she will begin the formal EU divorce process by the end of March, has come under fire from businesses, investors and lawmakers for having given little away about her plans for Brexit.
She is due to give a speech next week setting out more on the government’s objectives. (Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Alistair Smout, Ritvik Carvalho and Georgina Cooper; editing by Stephen Addison)