Features

Who’s afraid of the WTO?

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

Warnings by Remainers about the consequences of a ‘no deal’ Brexit are beginning to resemble a game of oneupmanship worthy of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen. Not content with claims that the M20 to Dover will be gridlocked with lorries waiting to undergo customs checks and that the North Ireland peace protest will break down, Doug Gurr, Amazon’s chief in the UK, apparently told Dominic Raab at a recent meeting that there will be ‘civil unrest’ within a fortnight of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. Next, they will have us living 150 to a shoebox.

Those who peddle this relentless doom-mongering fail to understand the protections which will remain in place for the UK under international law. Far from ‘crashing out of the EU’, failing to secure a free trade deal with the EU simply means that the UK will trade with the EU on terms set out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The pundit class tends to scoff at the WTO option. They dismiss it as a recipe for chaos. But that is to ignore the huge progress that this body has made in promoting global trade over the past two decades. The government should from the beginning have presented the WTO option as a viable counterpoint to the EU’s hardline, all-or-nothing stance.

The WTO oversees a system of trade rules for its 164-member countries, which together account for no less than 98 per cent of all global trade. Under the WTO General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT), tariffs on most manufactured goods between the UK and the EU would stay quite low, averaging around 3 per cent.

While EU leaders like to threaten us with hints that our exports would be unsellable in the EU, the fact is that non-tariff barriers such as arbitrary health and safety inspections and borders would be prohibited under the WTO’s Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements. The UK intends to retain conformity with EU regulations following Brexit, at least for the time being, meaning that the existing low levels of health and safety risks to the public in UK products will not change in the days after Brexit. There would, as a result, be no grounds for the EU to exclude our goods from its markets.


The WTO’s new Trade Facilitation Agreement obliges the EU to maintain borders which are as frictionless as possible, using modern technologies such as pre–arrival processing of documents and electronic payments. Discrimination against foreign products through all sorts of internal regulations is forbidden. These rules are enforced by a well-respected international tribunal which has a high rate of compliance and cannot be overruled by the European Court of Justice.

While tariffs on some EU goods — agricultural goods and automobiles in particular — would be higher than 3 per cent, economic gains secured from an independent trade policy and a more pro-competitive environment should compensate UK consumers.

The WTO’s coverage of services is incomplete and would not grant UK firms the level of EU market access they enjoy under the single market, but the UK is well placed to take a leading role in developing the new Trade in Services Agreement, due to resume over the next few years, as well as multilateral negotiations for services at the WTO. Roberto Azevedo, the director general of the WTO, announced that he is looking forward to having the UK back as an independent champion of free trade.

Breaking free of the EU customs union will enable the UK to boost trade with other countries around the world, taking advantage of WTO rules which allow countries to offer preferential trading arrangements to nations with which they negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). In charge of its own trade policy, the UK should be able to roll over many of the EU’s 60-plus FTAs with third countries, some of which have already indicated that they intend to offer the UK terms as good as they did to the EU.

Canada has even suggested that the UK may get a better deal than that which was offered to the EU under the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) two years ago. The UK Department of International Trade has already begun discussions with several countries with which the EU has failed to do trade deals, most notably the US. Since 90 per cent of world GDP growth in the coming decades is expected to be outside the EU, it makes sense that the UK looks beyond this region, which now accounts for less than half of its overall trade. The UK will no longer be required, as it is at the moment under EU rules, to impose tariffs on products which it does not produce, such as tropical fruit — reducing prices for consumers and giving us leverage when it comes to negotiating trade deals. The country will be in a strong position to do trade deals faster than the EU has managed because it will not be encumbered by a long-winded ratification process involving 27 member states.

Why, then, has the government damaged its negotiating position by seeming to exclude the WTO option and giving the impression that it is desperate to extract a trade deal with the EU at all costs? The UK has approached the EU as a supplicant, or worse, a wounded animal. Theresa May’s Chequers deal would have us clinging to a weak version of the single market and customs union, which would deprive us of the freedom we ought to win through Brexit. Even that is not enough for Michel Barnier.

Yet it is the EU which has more to fear from these negotiations, being nervous about having a large, liberated, pro-competitive economy on its doorstep. The government should have initiated this process, proposing an FTA based on CETA but better, with deeper access for services such as finance, and lower tariffs on a broader range of products. At the same time, the government should have been making parallel arrangements for a no-deal WTO option.

Thankfully, there are signs that UK negotiators are now moving in this direction. The UK government announced recently that it has submitted its schedule of tariff commitments for certification by the WTO. The UK’s new Trade Remedies Authority — set up to regulate international trade disputes — will shortly be up and running and the ports are being built up to handle the minimal extra customs checks which will be needed.

In any negotiation, there is no strategy worse than giving the impression that you are desperate for a deal at all costs. With the WTO option as an entirely acceptable, workable alternative to a trade deal, the UK is truly in a position to walk away. And that’s a good place to be.

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