Japan and the UK have agreed a “historic” free trade deal, as Britain races to secure easy access to overseas markets as it prepares to leave the European Union.
“This is a historic moment for the UK and Japan as our first major post-Brexit trade deal,” Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, said after a video call on Friday with the Japanese foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi.
Truss and Motegi agreed the deal “in principle”, the Department for International Trade (DIT) said in a statement, adding that the agreement was expected to increase trade with Japan by an estimated £12.5bn.
Truss touted the deal as an improvement on the Japan-EU free trade agreement, which will no longer cover the UK when its transition period out of the EU ends on 31 December.
Truss added: “The agreement we have negotiated – in record time and in challenging circumstances – goes far beyond the existing EU deal, as it secures new wins for British businesses in our great manufacturing, food and drink, and tech industries.
“From our automotive workers in Wales to our shoemakers in the north of England, this deal will help build back better as we create new opportunities for people throughout the whole of the UK and help level up our country.”
She said the agreement was “an important step” towards the UK eventually joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would secure the country access to markets in 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Japan and Britain have been negotiating a free trade deal since June, and reached a “substantial agreement” the following month after talks between Truss and Motegi in London.
They missed their original deadline, however, after Truss insisted on preferential treatment for stilton cheese amid pressure on Boris Johnson from British farmers concerned about the imminent loss of EU subsidies, according to the Nikkei Asian Review business newspaper.
Britain exported £18m of blue cheese globally last year, the FT said, citing data from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, but just £102,000 of that went to Japan.
The DIT statement released on Friday said Britain would “continue to benefit from access to the low tariffs for key food and drink products covered by quotas”, including stilton cheese.
Japanese business leaders have voiced alarm over the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit. About 1,000 Japanese companies employing 180,000 people have a presence in the UK, according to the Japanese foreign ministry.
Total bilateral trade was worth a total of £31.6bn last year, with 9,500 UK-based businesses exporting goods to Japan, according to British government figures.