Lord Maude of Horsham told this week’s Wine & Spirit Trade Association annual conference that there should be “a lot of conversations and a lot of preliminary work” ahead of the activation of Article 50, the trigger for formal Brexit talks which he said he does not expect to happen until mid-2017.
He said such alliances should be used to put pressure on national governments across the EU as “it’s the view of national governments that will prevail”, ahead of that of the European Commission.
Lord Maude’s comments came as the WSTA revealed it had started talks with Australia and New Zealand which it hoped would create a blueprint for future trade agreements involving the UK after it leaves the EU.
WSTA chief executive Miles Beale said there was “warm and broad-based support” in Australia and New Zealand for the organisation to work with industry bodies and government to develop model trade agreements.
He said: “Trade in wines and spirits is mutually beneficial and all negotiators must and should recognise this.
“We have no intention of idly waiting around for Brexit to happen. We have to take action now.”
British spirits exports to Australia and New Zealand have more than doubled to £140 million over the past five years.
One in five bottles of wine sold in the UK is Australian and New Zealand is witnessing rapid growth in sales in the UK off-trade.
Beale said: “While the UK cannot formally negotiate with the New Zealand and Australian governments yet, the industry can prepare most of the groundwork in advance. That’s precisely what the WSTA intends to do.
“Theresa May and her Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, have both shown their support for pioneering free trade deals between our two countries. Wines and spirits could and should be at the front of that deal.”
Lord Maude backed a pre-emptive approach, saying: “You can get a long way this side of Brexit actually happening. It will often be better to get a good agreement now than wait endlessly for the perfect one.
“Remainers argued that [any deals would] take forever to do, Leavers that they could be done overnight. Both are wrong.
“Do not believe that the US wouldn’t move pretty quickly to conclude a free trade agreement with us.”
Lord Maude, who was responsible for negotiating single market directives for Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s, added: “One of my abiding illuminations from my time as trade minster is just how much goodwill there is towards the UK around the world and in no area is that more pronounced than in high-end food and drink.”
But he gave the drinks industry little hope that the May administration might cut excise duty in a bid to stimulate economic activity to counter any effects of the Brexit vote.
“I would expect that a priority for the government should be to create an investment environment in terms of tax which is very benign,” he said. “Cutting excise duties is more about stimulating demand than encouraging investment.”