GENEVA – Britain's trade minister promised on Tuesday its departure from the European Union would not create a legal vacuum at the World Trade Organization, and said Britain was determined to champion free trade.
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Britain is a full and founding member of the WTO, but its membership terms are currently shared with the rest of the EU, Liam Fox told a WTO conference in Geneva.
"The UK will continue to uphold these commitments when we leave the European Union. There will be no legal vacuum. But this will not stop us pursuing a more liberalized trade agenda in the future," he said.
"The decision of the British people to leave the European Union is not symptomatic of a people looking inward, but a people who want to make more control of our laws, our money, and our borders."
Fox's appearance at the WTO, his first since the Brexit referendum on June 23, created a rare buzz among trade diplomats in Geneva, while markets were bracing in case Britain committed itself to a disruptive "hard Brexit" scenario.
But Fox did not reveal new details about how Britain planned to manage its exit from the EU, and left for talks with European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom without taking questions.
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Malmstrom, who addressed the WTO conference earlier in the day, told Reuters she would be meeting Fox in the afternoon. Asked her view of the Brexit negotiations, she said: "There aren���t any negotiations."
Asked if she might have more to say after meeting Fox, she said: "I don���t think so, but it���s always useful to talk."
Opposition lawmaker Chuka Umunna said Fox had delivered only "bland platitudes" at the WTO, which showed the government's "total confusion".
"Vote Leavers promised that Britain would rapidly sign global free trade deals, while keeping full access to the Single Market. We are yet to see any detail as to how that might be achieved," Umunna said in a statement.
Patrick Minford, co-chair of Economists for Brexit, said Fox's speech was a first sign of steps in the right direction.
"Rather than just being the default position in the absence of a trade deal with the EU in order to deliver the type of Brexit the UK electorate voted for, leaving the Single Market is in fact the optimal option for the UK economy,��� Minford said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Andrew Roche)