The case of the two UK-EU ‘interim’ deals — is the one in the WTO really ‘Plan B’?

The move reported by Politico on March 19, 2017 is important, but it might not be what it seems

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED MARCH 20, 2017 | UPDATED MARCH 23, 2017

According to Politico on March 19, 2017, the UK and EU are preparing a 10-year interim duty-free trade arrangement based on WTO rules, and this is a “Plan B” in case the two sides cannot agree on a free trade agreement before the UK leaves the EU, presumably by March 28, 2019.

Clock on Big Ben tower
Specifying 10 years is a cushion, not a timetable

Before I continue, I want to make clear that I have not talked to any officials of the kind Politico cites, and therefore have not heard any explanation from them. But I have read the WTO articles cited and I believe there is a confusion about what this means.

The confusion is about two different “interim” situations.

Interim (1): all in the familyBack to top

The first, and up to now the only “interim” to have been discussed, is whether the UK and EU will need more time, beyond the end of the 2-year Article 50 negotiation (the “divorce talks”) — beyond March 28, 2019, if Article 50 is triggered on March 29 this year.

If they do — and all but the most optimistic Brexiteers think two years will be far too short — they will set up interim arrangements between themselves, while they continue to discuss a final deal on trade and other issues. The interim arrangements could include temporarily continuing with part or all of the single market, what to do where jurisdiction is currently with the EU Court of Justice, and so on — until a final deal is agreed and kicks in.

Those interim arrangements are entirely between the EU (and its 27 remaining member states) and UK, and no one else (subject to WTO constraints). It’s voluntary although the situation is likely to force the UK and EU into an interim deal.

Interim (2): in the WTO — free trade in goodsBack to top

What Politico reported about is related but different. In effect, this may be a WTO requirement — an obligation as well as a right.

The best way to explain this is to start by taking a step back and looking at the final deal between the UK and EU (assuming there will be one).

If the final outcome is a UK-EU free trade agreement in goods — or even a customs union, although that seems to be ruled out now — then the UK and EU will have to notify the agreement to the WTO.

This is required by WTO rules: principally, Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Article 24’s disciplines are needed because it allows countries to deviate from the WTO’s principle of non-discrimination. Instead of charging their normal import tariffs, countries in a free trade agreement trade preferentially, duty free, among themselves.

Article 24 is the one that also requires the free trade agreement to cover “substantially all the trade”, which means a free trade agreement on cars alone would violate WTO rules.

Sometimes a free trade agreement cannot be implemented immediately, or part of it may have to be delayed (the agriculture section of the EU-Turkey customs union has been in preparation for decades).

In that case the two sides notify an interim arrangement to the WTO under GATT Article 24.5(c), which requires this to lead to a final agreement “within a reasonable length of time”:

(c)      any interim agreement referred to in subparagraphs (a) and (b) shall include a plan and schedule for the formation of such a customs union or of such a free-trade area within a reasonable length of time

This interim period should normally be up to 10 years although an extension is possible as an exception, according to a modification signed in Marrakesh in 1994 as part of the package of agreements that set up the WTO:

3.      The “reasonable length of time” referred to in paragraph 5(c) of Article XXIV should exceed 10 years only in exceptional cases. In cases where Members parties to an interim agreement believe that 10 years would be insufficient they shall provide a full explanation to the Council for Trade in Goods of the need for a longer period.

In other words, if the UK and EU intend to have an interim agreement (on all issues), then they must notify the WTO for the part dealing with free trade in goods.

Doing so would allow the UK and EU to implement their own interim arrangements and to be free to negotiate their final deal for a period of at least 10 years. Whether they conclude that deal in less than 10 years is up to them. Specifying 10 years is a cushion, not a timetable.

In that sense it is not Plan B, unless you believe concluding a free trade agreement between the UK and EU in two years is a feasible Plan A.

(See P.S. added below)

Interim (2): in the WTO — free trade in servicesBack to top

A similar requirement exists for services. The Politico story did not mention this. The relevant provision is Article 5 of the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

This requires “economic integration” in services to have “substantial sectoral coverage”, and also allows a delay in implementing the integration deal.

It says the provisions should take effect “either at the entry into force of that agreement or on the basis of a reasonable time-frame” (with some exceptions).

In other words, if the UK and EU intend to end up with some kind of free trade deal (or “economic integration”) in services, then this too would have to be notified to the WTO, although no time limit for the interim period appears to be set.

Again, notifying this interim period to the WTO would allow negotiations to continue during that period although some indication of the final destination might be needed at the outset.

And since these provisions only apply to free trade (or something similar) in goods and services, they say nothing about many other subjects that could end up in a UK-EU deal: mutual recognition of standards and regulations for goods and services, issues such as rules of origin, participation in institutions such as Euratom or the Erasmus programme, and a host of other subjects such as security cooperation.

Both for goods and services, this is an unusual situation, just as the whole of Brexit is. Normally countries negotiate a free trade agreement and notify it to the WTO when the deal is done. They can then say what they are going to implement immediately and which parts of the final destination are being delayed.

With Brexit the reverse is happening. The UK and EU have a single market arrangement and are withdrawing some or all of its features. Here the notification will be needed almost at the start of the negotiations, not at the end. Knowing the final destination so early in the process might not be so easy.

Finally, since I am not a lawyer, I may have missed something in reading GATT Article 24 and its modification, and GATS Article 5. So comments welcome via the feedback form or by tweeting @CoppetainPU

P.S.Back to top
  1. Lorand Bartels wrote a revealing article in 2009 (pdf) about the difference between a full (or final) free trade agreement and an interim agreement as notified to the WTO. Among the points he raised: the fact that no interim agreement had been notified since 1995; that an interim agreement would normally be expected to state what the “fully-fledged” final agreement would contain; and the increased chance that objecting members could resort to litigation under the WTO’s dispute settlement system.
  2. Since I posted this article, a number of people, including Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s new ambassador to the EU, have stated that the UK and EU can conclude a free trade agreement within the 2-year Article 50 period. That would certainly make an interim agreement Plan B. However, few outside the UK government share that view — see for example the repeated statements by Pascal Lamy, former EU trade commissioner and ex-WTO director-general. For many, having an interim agreement would be Plan A (and as discussed above that would oblige the UK and EU to notify the WTO). Plan B would be dealing with the “cliff edge” of no UK-EU deal, which could well also mean no agreement on their WTO schedules and therefore no “WTO terms” to fall back on either.

Updates: March 23, 2017 — “P.S.” added, plus some editing to try to make the text clearer
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