In the aftermath of Parliament’s rejection of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, there is a way forward for the Government which allows a smooth transition into a No Deal scenario after 29th March, if found necessary, and then allows the UK to negotiate its desired comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU without having to impose tariffs or quotas in the interim. There is a mechanism to ‘manage’ a No Deal scenario; one that works within existing WTO rules, and that is not widely known about.
This is essentially an alternate transition or interim period, but within WTO rules without having to levy tariffs or (arguably) pay membership fees to the EU, but requiring some customs forms levied on the 7% of UK businesses (400,000 out of 5.7 million UK private registered businesses) that actually trade with the EU. This is the deal with the EU used by China, the USA, India, Australia and New Zealand for example.
These recommendations are based on my nearly ten years of experience as a member of the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, working on EU trade deals such as those with Canada, New Zealand, India, South Korea, Japan and Columbia/Peru, and drawing on high level discussions I have had with senior trade representatives for the EU and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
In the event of No Deal, there is a strong case to maintain preferential tariff and quota rates at zero between the UK and the EU for a limited period – thought to be around two years. There are a number of arguments for exemptions to what are termed ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) rules, which require the same treatment in terms of tariff rates and treatment between WTO members to avoid discrimination. They are:
1) It is to the advantage of fellow WTO members to minimise disruption between our two large markets, which would reduce knock-on impacts to their imports/exports to the UK or EU markets. WTO members have to show financial harm to justify objections to practices (or tariff schedules). Civitas calculate that £13 billion of tariffs would have to be levied on EU goods entering the UK and £5 billion on UK goods entering the EU Single Market if standard tariffs are levied under No Deal. This is one justification for keeping preferential rates of tariffs for a period whilst a full trade deal is finalised.
2) There are exemptions under National Security grounds such as over the issue of Northern Ireland, which the IEA have argued as a case for an exemption, but this is less appealing given its association with US and Russian cases for exemptions, such as over US tariffs on Chinese steel.
3) Exemptions to ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) rules under Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) 1947. This appears to be the most substantive argument. WTO rules state that preferential benefits, such as tariffs and quotas for goods which are more favourable than MFN treatment, may only be extended to another country if it is part of a customs union or a free trade area. The ultimate legal authority to grant such preferences is Article 24 of GATT , incorporated into the WTO regime when that body commenced operations in 1995.
Article 24 is helpfully the ultimate basis in international law for the existence of the EU itself as a preferential trading bloc, which grants preferential treatment to its members within the Customs Union.
If the UK accepts Donald Tusk’s offer of a free trade agreement along the lines of CETA+++ or what I propose as ‘SuperCanada’, then the UK and EU will be in the process of moving towards creating a free trade area – Tusk has offered a tariff and quota free deal plus services (whilst leaving the EU Customs Union) – so qualifies under this criterion.
There are two under-appreciated aspects of Article 24 which have direct relevance to our situation, and which provide reassurance.
Firstly, Article 24, para 3 states:
The provisions of this Agreement [i.e. the requirement to extend MFN treatment equally to all] shall not be construed to prevent:
(a) Advantages accorded by any contracting party to adjacent countries in order to facilitate frontier traffic
- This has direct relevance to the position of Northern Ireland, and our adjacent country of Ireland. Some commentators have claimed that a sensitive and appropriate management of trade which respects and upholds both the letter and the spirit of, for example, the Good Friday Agreement would be in some form an unauthorised infringement of MFN treatment. That claim is clearly untrue.
- There is also no obligation under WTO rules to erect a so-called “hard border” on 29th March. Government may continue discussions with our counterparts in Dublin to arrive at adequate and effective technological measures for the management of trade with minimal friction. You will have noticed the encouraging signs that the Irish Government already appreciates this fact. (See, for example, “Ireland has no plans for hard border after Brexit, says Varadkar”, from The Guardian of 21st December 2018)
- We can expect that there will be considerable international sympathy for measures which support the situation in Northern Ireland, and hence a reluctance on the part of third countries to lodge objections. Although given the sensitivities this should not be stressed too heavily, such an exemption falls into ‘National Security’ related actions.
Secondly, Article 24 not only authorises member states to operate lower/zero tariff free trade agreements, it also permits them to offer lower/zero tariffs pre-emptively during the course of negotiations. The relevant provision, Article 24 para 5, is worth quoting at length, with emphasis added to the critical wording:
Accordingly, the provisions of this Agreement shall not prevent, as between the territories of contracting parties, the formation of… a free-trade area or the adoption of an interim agreement necessary for the formation of… a free-trade area; Provided that:…
(b) with respect to a free-trade area, or an interim agreement leading to the formation of a free-trade area, the duties and other regulations of commerce maintained in each of the constituent territories and applicable at the formation of such free–trade area or the adoption of such interim agreement to the trade of contracting parties not included in such area or not parties to such agreement shall not be higher or more restrictive than the corresponding duties and other regulations of commerce existing in the same constituent territories prior to the formation of the free-trade area, or interim agreement as the case may be; and
(c) any interim agreement referred to in subparagraph… (b) shall include a plan and schedule for the formation of such… a free-trade area within a reasonable length of time.
(A WTO declaration, the Understanding on the Interpretation of Article 24, 1994, clarifies that the ‘reasonable period of time’ in para 5(c) will generally taken to be no more than 10 years.) I estimate based on EU trade deals to date, that a UK-EU comprehensive Free Trade Agreement could take around two years, especially given the unique reality that the UK is starting from a convergent position with the EU, with zero tariffs and quotas and with our laws and standards currently harmonised.
- If, before 29 March, the UK has reached an ‘interim agreement’ with the EU to pursue negotiations towards a comprehensive free trade deal, both sides would be permitted under WTO rules to continue with the present zero tariff/zero quota trading arrangements. There would be no disruption to the man or woman on the high street. No Deal would mean No Change, as the cost of goods would not go up.
- In the present situation the ‘interim agreement’ would not have to be an extensive document running to hundreds of pages. The schedule of items covered by the negotiations would be all goods, as already envisaged in our discussions with the EU. The plan which the document sets out would have to amount to little more than a timetable for regular meetings and an ultimate deadline, some years hence, by which point negotiations will have to be concluded.
- An ‘interim agreement’, then, need be little more than an agreement to continue talks – while also continuing zero-tariff and zero-quota trade on both sides – plus a deadline no later than 29th March 2029. I accept that the EU has so far declined to agree any deadlines (other than 29th March) but since the absence of a final cut-off point has been a major contributing reason for Parliament’s rejection of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, perhaps the EU will now reassess that stance.
- Whilst legal challenges at WTO level might be expected from an unhelpful member, the reality is that any such challenge is unlikely to get to the WTO ‘court’ – its appellate body – for at least two years and possibly longer, and only if that body finds the UK non-compliant would any compensating actions be authorised such as tariffs. This is within WTO rules, and if any challenges arise a fully compliant Free Trade Agreement should already be in place by the time any appellate body were to meet. The EU is now under extreme pressure from EU27 industry and commerce who enjoy a £96 billion surplus with the UK.
- You will recall that the draft Political Declaration indicates the EU want to reach a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the UK on the basis of zero tariffs and quotas (see paras 17, page 5, and para 23, page 6) and extending to services (para 29, page 7). Those provisions are fully in line with numerous public statements made since the 2016 referendum by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator – offering a CETA+++, or what I term a ‘SuperCanada’ trade deal, on 7th March 2018, 30th August and 6th October 2018.
It is significant that Heiko Maas, Foreign Minister of Germany, has already indicated a willingness to continue talks (see “Germany says EU ready to talk if UK rejects Brexit deal” on Reuters, 15th January).
This approach would continue the pre-29th March status quo in trading arrangements and patterns without interruption, justified by an explicit provision of the WTO regime. The possible grounds on which any third country could lodge an objection to this are extremely slight (unlike for schedule changes).
An ‘interim agreement’ would therefore be an important component of a ‘Managed No Deal’ outcome from 29th March. It permits trade between us and the EU to continue without tariffs or quotas under No Deal while creating a space for negotiations to be reset and recommenced on the basis of reaching a SuperCanada or CETA+++ trade treaty.
I urge the Government to now adopt this course of action, as it will mitigate the main impacts of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit and eliminate the task of having to assess and charge tariff rates on 19,753 MFN tariffs under the EU Customs Union, thereby substantially reducing friction at borders.
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