The World Trade Organisation was established in January,1995 to promote free trade since it believes that it provides benefits in the form of greater choice and lower prices, stimulates economic growth, raises incomes and promotes world peace. It also acts as a forum for negotiations to reduce tariff barriers, provide technical assistance for developing countries and resolve trade disputes between its 164 members. For example, in August 2018, Turkey complained to the WTO about US sanctions on Turkish exports of aluminium and steel. If, after investigation and consultation, the WTO believes a country has broken its rules, it can authorise retaliatory tariffs. Until the Brexit referendum, the WTO had not featured in UK newspapers. However since the vote and the lack of progress in talks with the EU, there has been increased interest in its role in regulating world trade since, if no agreement is reached, the UK will fall back on WTO rules following its departure from the EU on 29th March.
Anyone wishing to join the WTO must agree to accept all its rules, particularly the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ agreement whereby countries must apply the same tariff to similar goods, irrespective of the exporting country, unless there is a free trade agreement between the importing and exporting countries. Thus if we leave the EU without an agreement, the EU will apply the same 10% tariff on UK car exports into the EU as it does to those coming in from other non-EU countries. Similarly, if the UK government were to announce a unilateral move to zero tariffs on agricultural products from the EU, without a trade deal, we could not levy tariffs on agricultural goods from elsewhere.
A significant concern is that WTO rules do not reduce regulatory barriers. At present, because of the Single Market, a UK car manufacturer can sell products as easily in Rome as Romford. This will cease if there is no agreement with the EU and therefore we would expect UK goods to be inspected when entering the EU, in the same way that British goods entering Japan are currently examined to ensure that they meet EU standards. This might not seem a major problem but exporters fear that administrative burdens of completing customs forms and the delays to drivers at borders will be significant, therefore increasing costs. This will be particularly important for those trading in perishable goods, some medical products which need to be refrigerated, and companies currently operating with minimal stocks in order to reduce costs.
A third concern is that WTO rules do not currently provide as much freedom for trade in services as they do for trade in goods. At present, for example, UK banks provide services for individuals, businesses and other banks across the EU without needing to duplicate all of their physical locations overseas. Leaving the EU will make trade in services, which make up 80% of the UK’s GDP, far more difficult and explains why UK financial consultants, bankers, accountants, etc are moving staff and have established physical locations overseas.
Some in favour of leaving the EU argue that these arguments will not be significant since much non-EU trade is done under WTO rules. However the Economist pointed out (4th August 2018) that the UK would be the only large country trading solely on WTO rules and many other countries have arrangements in place to reduce the administrative customs burdens which hinder trade.
The problem with the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is also causing difficulties in our negotiations with the EU since two almost incompatible ideas need to be reconciled. On the one hand, the EU is insisting that, unless there is a new form of customs union between the UK and the EU (which some pro-Brexiteers resist since it will reduce our ability to sign other deals), there must be a border between the UK and the EU to allow for customs checks to ensure that goods pay the appropriate tariffs and meet regulatory standards. For England, Scotland and Wales, this will be a sea border. However between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it will be a land one. Not only will this be hard to enforce since there are many possible routes between the two, there are also very major political difficulties in re-establishing a hard border which relate to historical issues between the two countries. The idea of a “back-stop” which would allow free trade between the two countries would involve a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, something which is equally politically difficult to accept.
It is difficult to predict what the effects on our trade will be until the Brexit agreement is reached. As part of the EU, we currently benefit from free trade treaties between the EU and other countries and we do not know whether we will be able to negotiate to keep these agreements. A recent example of this is the recently-signed EU-Japan trade deal which we hope to replicate. However the Japanese have made it clear that it will not be ready to be signed by 29th March and, given the importance of Japan-UK trade, this is potentially a serious issue. Indeed, Dr Fox’s claim in 2017 that the UK would be able to replicate up to 40 EU free trade deals, immediately we leave the EU is not going to happen. So far we have signed agreements with Australia, Chile, the Faroe Islands, some African nations, Israel, Palestine and Switzerland. The failure to sign agreements is already impacting on British businesses trading with Asia since goods now being shipped will not arrive until after 29th March and exporters do not know whether they will be liable to tariffs or potentially might even be sent back to the UK. If there is no deal by 29th March, then 18th April becomes the next key date since, by then, the UK must confirm whether it will make contributions to the EU’s 2019 budget which are due by the end of April. A decision to make these payments will require a vote in Parliament. If we do not make these payments, then our relations with the EU will deteriorate further and the chances of a trade deal will diminish even further.