Three thoughts on the Brexit referendum

Welcome to fantasyland. Are the toughest Brexit negotiations likely to be within the UK itself? Anyone for a ‘Swiss option’? Drug prices, bent bananas, TTIP — have the media missed a trick?


By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 29, 2016 | UPDATED JUNE 29, 2016


The UK has entered fantasyland after the June 23, 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

We can all fantasise.

1. The toughest negotiations will be within the UK itself

This one is more reality than fantasy. Much has been said about the options facing the UK, including what economic relationship the EU might offer London — versions modelled on Norway/EEA, Switzerland, Canada, the US and so on.

1. Toughest negotiations are within UK
2. Any one for a Swiss option?
3. Have the media missed a trick?

Crucially, this will also depend on what relationship the UK would seek. That would have to be thrashed out inside the UK before it starts to talk to Brussels. But yet after a long and bitter referendum campaign, no one has a clue what the UK’s post-Brexit economic and trade policy is going to be, least of all those who campaigned to leave.

No one has a clue what the UK’s post-Brexit economic and trade policy is going to be, least of all those who campaigned to leave

The Brexit government will face a dilemma. If it wants any meaningful access to the EU’s single market the bargain would have to include some form of free movement of labour. Obviously that would contradict what many “leave” voters sought.

Those voters were promised tighter immigration control. That means EU citizens would need work permits and visas to stay in the UK (as with the much-cited Australian points system), and in return the UK would get nothing like full access to the single market.

British goods and services would face new trade barriers across the Channel. British citizens would face the barriers of EU visas and work permits. “Leave” campaigners hailed Britain’s tradition of openness; but their first acts on the way out could be to close the doors.

This could maximise the disruption to the UK economy. (It would be mitigated only if the UK decided to liberalise unilaterally by lowering trade barriers and scrapping the worst farm subsidies, as some economists advocate. But that was never seriously debated in the campaign and would no doubt face strong opposition, including from farmers who had been promised continued support.)

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, seems to believe the UK can have its cake and eat it. It will control immigration from the EU, but UK citizens will continue to be free to live and work in the EU and British companies will continue to enjoy the EU’s single market, he says.Now that is fantasy.

Still, debating all of that, even internally, may have to wait while the main political parties and much of UK politics struggle to deal with the referendum’s fallout.

Johnson, Gove or May? Corbyn or any number of rivals? What will Scotland seek to bargain with Brussels? Can it veto Brexit? Will Scotland and Northern Ireland hold independence referendums?

An early general election to try to give the next government a mandate seems likely (but not certain). It could be as messy as the referendum campaign itself, and by that time politicians could find themselves trusted even less than they are now.

By comparison, negotiating one or other model of relationship with the EU and the rest of the world would seem to be pretty simple.

See also:
Argentinisation of British citizenship
Britain’s bargaining stance post-Brexit
Brexit: the disaster decades in the making

Swisss Fed Council_2016 1200px cropped
The Swiss Cabinet (“Federal Council”) 2016.
From left: Alain Berset (Social Democrat), Didier Burkhalter (Liberal), Doris Leuthard (Christian Democrat, Confederation Vice President for 2016), Johann Schneider-Ammann (Liberal, Confederation President for 2016), Ueli Maurer (People’s Party), Simonetta Sommaruga (Social Democrat), Guy Parmelin (People’s Party)
(and Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, the council’s chief of staff)

2. Any one for a Swiss option?

Indendence or betrayal? Can the splits be healed? The referendum has divided the UK into four or more regions with apparently irreconcilable differences and perhaps more reasons to separate than to stay together.

So how about a “Swiss option”? Not Switzerland’s bilateral relationship with the EU, but how it deals with the kind of divisions that we are seeing in the UK.

With four national languages, each in a culturally different area, Switzerland emerged from political and religious conflict over a century ago with a unique political model based on consensus, direct democracy and decentralisation — through local, cantonal and federal government.

By and large, Switzerland has managed to avoid the kind of political about-turn that the UK referendum has produced from a difference of less than 4 percentage points

Its Cabinet has seven members, shared among the main political parties according to their seats in Parliament. Currently that’s two each for the Social Democrats, Liberals and right-wing People’s Party and one for the Christian Democrats. The presidency is also rotated annually.

The result is compromise and a degree of maturity in political decision-making even though the parties’ views are very different. By and large, Switzerland has managed to avoid the kind of political about-turn that the UK referendum has produced from a difference between the two sides of less than 4 percentage points.

So imagine a UK Cabinet of two each for the Conservatives and Labour, and one each for UKIP, the Lib-Dems and SNP, forced to make decisions by consensus. (The numbers are based on shares of votes since the Swiss model uses proportional representation.)

What’s more, the Swiss are the world’s experts on referendums. To be sure, the Swiss see flaws in their system, but a decentralised direct democracy does encourage politicians to be closer to the electorate. Commentators who are flying dangerously close to rejecting democracy, in their criticism of the UK holding this or any other referendum, might take note.

It’s just a thought. A fantasy. Of course it won’t happen. It wouldn’t be British.

See also:
Direct Democracy on Trial
Swiss weigh up consequences of Brexit vote
Why elections are bad for democracy


3. Have the media missed a trick?

Well, yes some media did stoke up hysteria and contempt for the facts. Many others tried hard to explain the issues properly, present reality checks and so on. But there is another, longer term question-mark over the media’s role.

One of the complaints about the EU is that decisions are taken by unelected, unaccountable, anonymous officials, and that the UK has no say. Brussels is a den of conspiracy and secrecy.

Sure, the European Commission’s gigantic bureaucracy is inevitably distant from the public, but a lot more information is available about what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg than the public believe. Much of it is tedious, but then so is the work of Whitehall and Westminster.

The EU is more transparent about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks than the US is. The media have missed a trick

Could the media have done more to inform the public about EU affairs? Yes, within the limits of what is relevant to readers, listeners and viewers. That still leaves a lot of potentially interesting stories, even for an easily-bored public.

The mainstream UK media have reported almost nothing on debates and decisions in the EU. The only times it covered elected UK representatives in the European Parliament was when Nigel Farage was obnoxious to a senior EU official and when he insulted the entire Parliament.

No wonder most British voters had no idea what their elected representatives were doing on their behalf, or what their elected ministers were debating in the European Council.

And yet the work of the British public’s elected representatives could be shown to be interesting and relevant, if only the media did their job properly: from medicine prices and tobacco control (the basis of the UK’s plain packaging legislation), to financial protection for holidaymakers. But definitely not banning bendy bananas.

The opportunity may be lost. If English ceases to be an official EU language the British public will be even less informed. They could, of course, seek help from their Polish immigrant neighbours.

One frequently-heard complaint is that the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP is being negotiated in secrecy. And yet the EU Commission has put all its negotiating texts online, while the US has refused to do so.

That’s right, the EU is more transparent about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks than the US is. The media have missed a trick.

Picture credits
Federal Palace of Switzerland at night (Museumsnacht, night of museums), 2006. By Rolf + Tom Weiss, Public Domain
Swiss Federal Council group photo: Swiss government, Wikimedia commons
Bananas: by Susan Slater, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution — Share Alike 4.0 International licence

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WTO amendment on access to medicines faces EU conundrum

Only three more ratifications are needed for the WTO’s first ever amendment to take effect. Or is it … FOUR?

Note: The “conundrum” was dodged on January 23, 2017 when five countries were officially announced to have ratified the amendment. The total leapt over the targeted 110 to 112. Now that the target has been reached, this blog post will no longer be updated. But the conundrum remains unresolved. More up-to-date information is available here.

By Peter Ungphakorn

After waiting for over a decade, the World Trade Organization is finally close to achieving the first ever amendment to its rule-book, with only a handful of members still needing to formally accept new intellectual property provisions dealing with one aspect of access to medicines.

Two thirds of the membership (110 of the WTO’s present 164 members) have to ratify or “accept” the amendment (on exporting medicines made under compulsory licence) before it can take effect. The number of accepting members is finally approaching the two thirds. This has exposed a discrepancy in the way the European Union’s membership is counted. And that in turn raises questions over when the 110 is actually reached.

Worse, the counting method the EU uses could even prevent some amendments ever taking effect.

The strange case of the missing EU member

Normally, the EU is counted as 29 WTO members: its 28 member states plus the EU itself. This explains why the WTO’s membership is currently 164.

Counting the EU as 29 would mean that 107 members have accepted the amendment, and only three more are needed to reach 110 — detailed figures below.

The question on Par.6 acceptanceThe WTO and EU were interviewed back in March and early April 2016 (before the latest acceptances were received, and when the WTO had 162 members, requiring 108 acceptances). At that time, the number needed seemed to be 11, a number the WTO confirmed but the EU contradicted.

“We are 11 short of the two thirds we need,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told IP-Watch in March 2016. “We expect Qatar and Tajikistan to ratify [in April] which would then leave us nine short.” (Nine have now ratified since March.)

But the European Commission, which speaks on behalf of the whole EU, has a different count: 28.

“To our best knowledge, the number of votes the EU has according to the WTO agreement corresponds to the number of EU Member States, which is 28,” said Daniel Rosario, the Commission’s spokesperson for trade (note “to our best knowledge” and “votes”).

“Therefore … the TRIPS amendment would at this point be 12 WTO members short of entry into force.” Rosario said at that time.

In this particular case, the discrepancy makes no difference to the real world. The content of the amendment is already in effect through a legal instrument known as a “waiver”, which remains in place until the amendment takes effect. So politically, the WTO may be able to go ahead and celebrate its first ever rule-change without having to worry about the legal niceties.

But the WTO is above all a legal organisation, where getting the rules right in detail does matter tremendously, as can be seen from any official WTO document or dispute ruling. The EU and WTO have had nine years to try to sort out this question — the EU accepted the amendment in 2007. It remains unresolved.


  • Two thirds of WTO members = 110
  • Non-EU members accepting amendment = 78
  • WTO says 3 more non-EU members needed because EU = 29
  • EU says 4 more non-EU members needed because EU = 28

Even if this particular amendment has little impact on the real world, failure to sort out the legal issues could hold up future amendments that will count. One is already in process, on “trade facilitation” (streamlining border procedures).

And for a handful of critically important provisions, all WTO members have to accept an amendment, not just two thirds (Article 10.2 of the WTO Agreement).

In present circumstances, that means 164 acceptances, a figure that can never be reached if the EU is only counted as 28. Something has to give.

The issue: compulsory licensing for export

The 1994 WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) contains a number of flexibilities allowing governments to bypass certain patent rights, including for pharmaceuticals.

One is compulsory licensing (or some other means) where the government can decree that generic versions can be made without the permission of the patent owner, provided some conditions are met, such as an attempt at voluntary licensing.

But the agreement also says that for compulsory licensing (or similar action), “any such use shall be authorized predominantly for the supply of the domestic market of the Member authorizing such use” (Article 31(f)). This would normally prevent the generic from being exported to a poorer country. (The original drafters said later that at the time they had underestimated the implications.)

In 2003, WTO members agreed to change the rule so that medicines made under compulsory licence could be exported to countries that are unable to make the medicines themselves. The legal means was a “waiver” — Article 31(f) is waived provided certain conditions are met such as special packaging and distinctive marks for the generics, and notification to the WTO. Specifically, countries following the provisions of the waiver will not be challenged under the WTO’s legal dispute settlement system.

Two years later, WTO members agreed to turn the waiver into an amendment of the TRIPS Agreement. The waiver remains in place until the amendment takes effect, without any need to renew it. The main reason for doing this is to be legally tidy. A waiver deviates from the rules; an amendment is part of the rules.

The one practical benefit is visibility: the waiver cannot be seen among the WTO agreements, whereas an amendment would be included. Other than that, switching from the waiver to the amendment makes no difference at all from the point of view of public health:

  • Access to medicines (the right to export a product under compulsory licence) is identical
  • The requirements for distinctive packaging and marks are identical
  • The notification requirements are identical
  • Protection against legal challenge is also unchanged

(The two are compared unofficially here [pdf])

More than 10 years after the amendment was agreed, it is only now approaching enough acceptances for it to come into force. The slow pace of acceptances should not be seen as a lack of interest in access to medicines because the amendment makes no practical difference. The real intergovernmental work on access to medicines is taking place elsewhere including collaboration between the World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization and WTO.

Rather, it is a lack of commitment to the system and the institution — a failure to follow up on a decision taken many years ago and to ensure multilateral rules are tidied up — which may sound abstract but is at the heart of the WTO’s functions.

Counting members, votes and instruments

The failure to sort out how the EU is counted reflects a similar lack of commitment to the institution. The WTO and EU seem to be basing their versions on different WTO rules.

The WTO’s approach is straightforward. The EU is 29 members out of 164, and that also applies to the number accepting an amendment.


¹ For the purposes of calculation of acceptances under Article X.3 of the WTO Agreement, an instrument of acceptance by the European Union for itself and in respect of its Member States shall be counted as acceptance by a number of members equal to the number of Member States of the European Union which are Members to the WTO

The EU’s method is different, counting itself as 28 WTO members instead of 29. EU spokesman Rosario only cited the Trade Facilitation Agreement which was agreed in 2014 — nine years after the TRIPS amendment — and is set out as an amendment to the package of WTO agreements. Here, a footnote says the EU should be counted as the same number as its member states (28).

Counting the EU as 28 for the TRIPS amendment “is in line with the one recently agreed in another multilateral instrument, the Trade Facilitation Agreement,” Rosario said.

In WTO agreements, the only case where the EU would be counted this way (28) is for voting (Article 9.1 of the WTO Marrakesh Agreement). Presumably this was designed to avoid giving the EU a numerical advantage over countries voting on the opposite side. (Voting has only ever been used once — and some say even that was a mistake — because members prefer decisions by “consensus”, defined as: “if no Member, present at the meeting when the decision is taken, formally objects to the proposed decision” — footnote to the same Article 9.1.)

But the arithmetic of accepting an amendment is different. When the EU is counted this way (28 instead of 29), it is imposing on the WTO membership the need for one additional non-EU member to accept in order to reach two thirds. The rules themselves (Article 10 of the Marrakesh Agreement) do not refer to voting for this purpose, only “acceptance by two thirds of the Members”. (Voting only comes into play explicitly for decisions about amendments.)

Conundrum pull quote 3If the EU is citing some obscure legal principle that accepting or ratifying an amendment is the same as voting, it has not said so openly.

There may be another explanation. When a country accepts a WTO amendment it also has to “deposit an instrument of acceptance” with the WTO. If the EU were to be counted as 29 WTO members, its instrument of acceptance would have to be on behalf of all 29, including the EU itself.

Internal legal problems may be preventing the EU from doing so, perhaps because that would imply the EU itself has jurisdiction over its member states’ intellectual property regimes, a contentious issue. But if that is the case, again, why not come clean?

All we know is what the instrument says: it is attached to the EU in the WTO’s list of acceptances, the only instrument that had to be made available on that list (note that Croatia is listed separately because it accepted before joining the EU).

Citing the “Treaty establishing the European Community”, the instrument’s only reference to the member states is that “the Protocol [amending the TRIPS Agreement] will be binding on the Member States of the European Union.” This sounds more like confirmation of a separate issue: that the amendment will apply to the EU member states, rather than an indication of how many have accepted it — according to the rules, an amendment normally only applies to those countries that have accepted it, not to the rest of the WTO’s membership.

Possible solutions, and an elephant

And yet, if the EU and WTO wanted to resolve this, they could, even without a treaty change. These are some possibilities, bearing in mind that if the EU counts only as the number of its member states then it is forcing one additional non-EU member to accept the amendment in order to reach the needed two thirds:

  • An interpretation by the WTO General Council to clarify how the EU should be counted for accepting amendments. This would be the clearest solution.
  • The EU unilaterally declaring that it will accept whatever count the WTO uses (29 in this case), or that it will always be the number of member states plus the EU itself
  • The EU routinely having a footnote clarifying its number as happened with trade facilitation
  • Making sure that at the end two members accept simultaneously, so that the two thirds figure is always reached no matter which count is used. This would be the messiest solution.

Finally, the elephant in the room. If the EU really has difficulty accepting a “member states plus one” count for the purposes of amendments, it might go so far as to say that in such cases it considers the WTO’s membership also to be all members apart from the EU itself, ie 163 instead of the present 164. This would give the WTO a variable membership count, which many would find difficult to swallow. Besides, there are no provisions in the WTO agreements for taking this route.

PS: countries that have not yet accepted

The following non-EU countries have not yet accepted the amendment. After the two thirds have been reached, the amendment will only apply to those that have accepted.

It will not apply to any remaining on this list:

Afghanistan; Angola; Antigua and Barbuda; Armenia; Barbados; Bolivia; Burkina Faso; Burundi; Cabo Verde; Cameroon; Chad; Congo; Côte d’Ivoire; Cuba; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Djibouti; Ecuador; Fiji; Gabon; The Gambia; Georgia; Ghana; Guatemala; Guinea; Guinea-Bissau; Guyana; Haiti; Jamaica; Kazakhstan; Kuwait; Kyrgyz Republic; Liberia; Liechtenstein; Madagascar; Malawi; Maldives; Mauritania; Mozambique; Namibia; Niger; Nigeria; Oman; Paraguay; Russian Federation; Saint Vincent & the Grenadines; Sierra Leone; Solomon Islands; Suriname; Swaziland; Tonga; Tunisia; United Arab Emirates; Vanuatu; Venezuela; Viet Nam; Yemen; Zimbabwe

The figures

WTO membership = 164Two thirds = 110

Acceptances listed on WTO website (where EU = 1 and Croatia is listed separately) = 80
(78 non-EU + EU + Croatia, which accepted before joining the EU)
Acceptances (EU = 28) = 106 (EU WTO members = 28 member states)
Acceptances (EU = 29) = 107 (EU WTO members = 28 member states + EU)
Still needed = 3 (or 4 according to EU count)

(WTO acceptance data last updated November 30, 2016)

Two WTO amendments in race to be first

Revised from an original analysis on Intellectual Property Watch, April 14, 2016. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

Updated July 15 and 29, 2016 to reflect the WTO’s increase in membership to 163 on July 14 and to 164 on July 29, 2016; and June 22, 2016–November 30, 2016 to add acceptances by Papua New Guinea, Peru, Belize, Benin, Dominica

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Nothing simple about UK regaining WTO status post-Brexit

It’s complex enough to fuel the arguments of campaigners on both sides, delight trade lawyers, and frustrate everyone else

By Peter Ungphakorn

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has finally broken his silence over the UK leaving the EU (Brexit), first with the Financial Times, followed by Reuters, the Guardian and others. One of his key points was that the UK would face complex talks in the World Trade Organization. What did he mean?

This is not an argument for or against Brexit. Proponents on either side can weigh up the costs and benefits and make their own cases.
But they cannot assume that becoming an independent WTO member will be simple and quick for the UK

A common assumption in the June 23 referendum debate is that after leaving the EU, the UK could “simply” operate as an ordinary WTO member. Eventually that’s true, but getting there would be far from simple.

Some experts believe that the adjustments would be little more than technical, and that any negotiations would be straightforward. They could be right. It would depend on whether the WTO’s membership is determined to accommodate the UK’s wishes.


BBC Reality Check
LSE Brexit Blog
The Economist Brexit Brief (pdf)

But recent experience in the WTO suggests that is unlikely. A closer look at the details suggests some key issues could be politically contentious among the WTO’s members, currently 162 countries.

On top of that, recent negotiating experience suggests that willingness to accommodate each other’s interests quickly is a scarce commodity in the WTO and even a final agreement cannot be guaranteed.

If that is true, then post-Brexit, the UK can expect a long and rough ride.

Negotiating with diverse countries

To be clear, these negotiations would be about sorting out the UK’s legal status quo in the WTO. They would be separate from any free trade agreement such as with the US, EU or anyone else, although the complicated web of talks would feed into each other.

The UK is already a WTO member, but its membership terms are bundled with the EU’s. Re-establishing the UK’s WTO status in its own right means both the UK and the EU would negotiate simultaneously with the rest of the WTO’s members to extract their separate membership terms. Agreement on the UK’s terms is unlikely before those of the EU.

Both the UK and the EU would negotiate simultaneously with the rest of the WTO. … Agreement on the UK’s terms is unlikely before those of the EU

For its part, the UK would have to negotiate with the EU itself, the US, China, Russia, India, Brazil and any trading nation or group of nations that matters, large or small, rich or poor. It would only take one objection to hold up the talks because the WTO operates by consensus, not voting, one reason why WTO negotiations take so long.

The UK government would have to balance conflicting interests domestically as well.

This is not an argument for or against Brexit. Proponents on either side can weigh up the costs and benefits and make their own cases. But they cannot assume that becoming an independent WTO member will be simple and quick for the UK.

The only way it could, would be if a post-Brexit UK became — as some propose — much more of a free trader, with low import duties across the board, and minimal subsidies for farmers. This would be simple to establish in the WTO, but domestic opposition would have to be overcome first.

Otherwise, much of the UK’s negotiations in the WTO would be tough, and could still be hotly debated domestically. For example, how much in subsidies for farmers would the UK want to negotiate? Since that would come out of the EU’s entitlement, how much would Brussels want to keep for itself? How much potential protection against imports would the UK want to reserve for its producers? Negotiating those would be complex, with almost all WTO members demanding a say.

Tricky subjects

The complexity comes from the EU’s strange situation in the WTO. The EU is 29 WTO members: the 28 member states plus the EU itself. They have combined “rights” (eg, to be able to export to other countries, and not to be discriminated against), balanced against shared “obligations” (eg, to open up to imports from them, and not to discriminate against them).

The UK would be creating its own rights and obligations out of the EU’s. Other countries with different interests would want to ensure the balance is also right for them

In the WTO, the EU has agreed to keep its import duties within certain limits. For example, for some types of shoes this is a maximum of 17%. That limit applies to all EU members when they import from outside the EU. The EU’s quotas — allowing quantities of certain products to be imported at special lower-duty rates — are for the whole single market, not any individual country such as the UK. Limits on agricultural subsidies are also for the entire EU.

To be an independent WTO member, the UK would be creating its own rights and obligations out of the EU’s. That’s not as simple as it sounds. One reason is because other countries with different interests would want to ensure the balance is also right for them.

Take just one hard-fought issue: low-duty import quotas for high-quality beef, just two of almost 100 EU quotas. The EU opened these beef quotas after lengthy negotiations with the Argentina , Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Paraguay, Uruguay, and the US. Extracting UK beef quotas out of the EU’s would require negotiations with all of them, plus possibly other suppliers such as Botswana, India and Namibia, and definitely the EU itself — Ireland, Germany and France have particularly strong beef lobbies.

While the exporting countries are pressing for the UK’s quota gates to be opened wider, and jostling with each other for paths through the opening, UK farmers would be pushing in the opposite direction. Remember, to reach agreement, the WTO’s consensus rule would apply.

The EU’s black hole

The goods schedule for the EU’s enlargement in 2004 to 25 members (EU–25) was certified and circulated in December 2016. Details are here

Now comes the surprise. We don’t know what most of the EU’s current commitments in the WTO are. The UK would be negotiating a share of key quantities that are unknown.

The only confirmed commitments on tariffs, quotas and farm subsidies are from before 2004 when the EU had 15 member states. The EU has expanded three times since then, but in 12 years it has been unable to agree with the WTO membership on revised commitments.

Now comes the surprise. We don’t know what most of the EU’s current commitments in the WTO are. The UK would be negotiating a share of key quantities that are unknown

That in itself is a warning. The UK will be negotiating a share of numbers that are unknown, with no guarantee of agreement. There may be practical solutions but again they will have to be negotiated.

Take agricultural subsidies that have a direct impact on prices or on how much farmers produce. The EU’s limit for its (pre-2004) 15 members is €67.2 billion. However, when informing the WTO about its subsidies, the EU says the limit is now €72.4 billion, perhaps from a secret updated draft that has not yet been agreed by the WTO’s membership. (An account of how these figures evolved can be found here.)

Actual subsidies are currently way below the limits, so the UK might have room to manoeuvre. Unless the UK decided to scrap support for prices or production volumes completely, it might try to negotiate a percentage of the EU’s limit (whatever it is). A number of responses is possible.

The hardest bargaining would take place if Australia and others persisted with their desire for everyone in the WTO to scrap this type of subsidy — allowing only a minimal amount worth up to 5% of the value of agricultural production. UK production is currently around £10 billion, implying a £500 million subsidy ceiling, considerably less than the £3 billion some have mentioned for a post-Brexit UK. British farmers would react.

A mountain of work

Some issues would be simpler. Many EU commitments could be converted to the UK’s without the need to negotiate, although the WTO membership would still want to confirm the conversions. This would be the case where no changes are needed.

For example, the UK could continue to observe the EU’s ceilings on tariffs (such as the 17% on shoes), and its market-opening pledges in services sectors. It could also simply translate EU regulations — on food safety, animal and plant health, and product standards and labelling — into its own. And so on.

That’s still a mountain of work: the EU (and UK) has around 20,000 products listed for collecting customs duties, thousands of product standards and regulations and extremely complicated limits on access to its services market.

(Some analysts even question whether other WTO members would accept the UK simply adopting EU tariffs.)

Besides, the UK would still be applying EU rules. Moving away from them, one of Brexit’s objectives, would require further negotiation or at least peer review in the WTO. (See also BBC Reality Check on a possible “lifetime’s worth of Parliamentary legislative sessions” in order to separate UK law from EU law)

None of this is impossible, but it won’t be sorted out quickly.


  • June 10, 2016: adding reference to BBC Reality Check on separating UK law from EU law
  • August 2, 2016: adding link to article questioning whether other countries would object to  UK simply adopting EU tariffs
  • August 19, 2016: adding link to article explaining the evolution of the EU’s de facto domestic support commitment

Picture credit: HPGRUESEN Creative Commons public domain CC0

Want to know more? A comprehensive report on these issues was published by AgraEurope in March 2016: