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MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The Brexit vote gives Britain a golden opportunity to forge a new role for itself as the guardian of global free trade, Prime Minister Theresa May's pro-Brexit trade minister said on Thursday.
The future trading terms of the world's fifth largest economy were thrown into question by the June 23 Brexit vote, though May's government has tried to reassure businesses that it will get the right trading deals for Britain.
In a speech to business leaders in the northern English city of Manchester, Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox said Brexit was an opportunity to forge a new free trade consensus "as a newly independent WTO member outside the EU".
"The UK has a golden opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world, one which puts the British people first," said Fox, who is likely to play a key role in Britain's Brexit negotiations.
"This is potentially the beginning of what I might call the post-geography trading world," he said. "We stand on the verge of an unprecedented ability to liberate global trade for the benefit of our whole planet."
But Fox also cautioned that his optimistic picture for a global free trade was being "darkened by the shadows of protectionism and retrenchment" that boded badly for the future.
The trade minister, who favors a so-called 'hard Brexit' or a clean break with the EU and its single market, also said it was in both Britain's and the EU's interests for their post-Brexit trading environment to be at least as free as it is now.
"Protectionism never actually helps anybody at all and as we move into a post-Brexit arena we want it to be as free and as open as possible," he said.
"It is in everybody’s interests that as we move forward we have at least as free a trading environment as we have today," he said.
Fox, who was criticized earlier this month for saying Britain has become "too lazy and too fat", said Britain had fallen behind in the global trade race because not enough British businesses export.
He said Britain would seek bespoke multi-lateral and bilateral trade arrangements after Brexit rather than fall back on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
Fox said Britain would take part in WTO efforts to reduce red tape across borders, phase out distortive export subsidies, and scrap trillions of dollars’ worth of tariffs.
"However, where progress has stalled at the multi-lateral level, the UK must be ready to look to more bespoke plurilateral and bilateral arrangements," he added.
In an interview with The Spectator magazine, Fox said that after Britain, the EU's second largest economy, leaves the bloc, Berlin will lose a key ally in enforcing "economic rigour" and could end up paying for other EU nations.
"If I were a German politician I would be worried that, without Britain, Germany has the potential to become the greatest ATM in global history," he said.
"The architecture is beginning to peel away," Fox said of the EU. "It’s going to sacrifice at least one generation of young Europeans on the altar of the single currency, and you can only rip out the social fabric from so much of Europe before it starts imploding."
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Ralph Boulton; Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Estelle Shirbon, Michael Holden and Helen Reid in London; editing by