Lawmakers and farm groups continue to press the Biden administration to begin negotiating free trade agreements, but U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai used a press conference Tuesday with visiting British Secretary of State for International Trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan to downplay the importance of such pacts.

“The free trade agreement is a tool,” Tai said in response to repeated questions from reporters about the potential of an FTA with the UK. “It is a very 20th century tool. It has its place certainly in the toolbox.

"What I would like to do is to ensure that the conversations and approaches that we bring today, especially with the pressures we are facing, are maximally responsive and we don’t spend years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears working on something that isn’t relevant to the needs of our people and our economies,” she said.

By the time countries take years to negotiate trade pacts, Tai asserted, the world has changed and new complications arise. New world events that threaten the global economy like climate change, the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine require countries like the U.S. and UK to evolve in order to counter them.

That argument may not sit well with pro-trade lawmakers and ag sector leaders.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, speaking at the group’s annual meeting in January called for the United States to negotiate new trade agreements as well as rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Duvall stressed that “agriculture goes a lot deeper than just being … about climate.” Farmers, he said, need to sell more overseas “and we’ve got to have trade agreements to do it.”

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Reporters at the Baltimore press conference pressed Tai on whether trade deals were being discussed in secret.

“Well, I guess there’s a reason why you have conversations behind closed doors,” Tai said.

Trevelyan expressed support for Tai throughout the event Tuesday but also stressed the UK’s willingness for negotiations.

“Does the UK stand ready to pull together an FTA?” she said. “Absolutely. We’ve said that for some time.”

The U.S. began talks with the UK in 2020 during the Trump administration, but those talks were put on hold after Joe Biden was elected. There were five rounds of talks before negotiations were idled.

There was, however, a trade breakthrough between the U.S. and UK announced Tuesday.

Trevelyan told reporters in Baltimore that talks on ending the spat over U.S. tariffs on British steel and aluminum were “progressing well.” She and Tai then drove to Washington where they and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced an agreement had been reached.

The U.S. will allow “historically-based sustainable volumes of U.K. steel and aluminum products to enter the U.S.” tariff-free and the UK will “lift retaliatory tariffs on over $500 million worth of U.S. exports to the U.K., including distilled spirits, various agriculture products and consumer goods,” they said in a statement.

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