Let’s keep this simple. What lies behind the sudden surge in interest in the UK’s and EU’s relationship with the World Trade Organization? First: the UK’s WTO membership
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED OCTOBER 7, 2017 | UPDATED OCTOBER 10, 2017
Adam Sharpe is my editor at IEG Policy. On October 5, he emailed me. “I almost spat my coffee out,” Adam wrote, “when I turned on twitter and saw that ‘EU-UK WTO’ was trending this morning. Looks like TRQs are now ‘mainstream’.”
“EU-UK WTO” was trending because suddenly the media were reporting on some highly technical discussions related to the UK leaving the EU (Brexit) and the implications in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The surge in interest was sparked by reports of a “breakthrough deal” in the separation talks between the UK and EU. The two were about to agree on a common position in the WTO. More reports followed almost immediately saying the US, New Zealand and some other WTO members rejected that position. This sparked a flood of comments, in many cases reflecting misunderstandings.
So here are a couple of primers on what this was all about. We’ll get to the “breakthrough deal” and those “TRQs” in part 2. First, the UK’s WTO membership.
The UK is a member
The UK is and will continue to be a WTO member. All experts agree that it is a member. All but a tiny minority also agree that there will be no break in its membership when it leaves the EU. There will be negotiations with other WTO members, but that will only be about some of the terms of membership — the commitments the UK makes in the WTO — not membership itself.
What matters in practice is that for now at least, all other WTO member governments accept the UK will continue to be a member. They are the ones who count because the WTO is run by them, and it’s the members that the UK will be dealing with.
For what it’s worth, the WTO Secretariat, also shares the view. Director-General Roberto Azevêdo has said it on several occasions including in an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Sakur (partial transcript here). But it’s not the Secretariat’s decision.
The WTO was originally the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The UK helped create GATT in 1948 and was therefore a founder-member. Then in 1973, the UK joined what is now the EU.
Then, in 1995 the WTO was created out of the GATT system. The EU became a member of the new organisation. So did the member states. Right now, the WTO has 164 members. The EU is 29 — the EU itself plus each of its 28 member states.
Because the EU has a common commercial policy, in the WTO it generally speaks on behalf of its member states (including the UK, France, Germany, etc). The member states do speak independently on issues such as administration and the budget, but not on the bulk of WTO affairs.
This is one reason why people are confused about the UK’s WTO membership. Because the EU is a member it’s easy to think that by leaving the union, Britain will also lose WTO membership. That is not the case. The UK is a member in its own right.
The UK will still be a member
The other source of confusion is the fact that the UK will have to negotiate something in the WTO. In fact, so will the EU, whose membership has not been questioned.
The UK will not be negotiating membership. It will be negotiating some of its promises to other WTO members.
This is linked to confusion about WTO “rules”. A common misunderstanding is that if London and Brussels cannot agree on a bilateral free trade arrangement, then trade between them will fall back on “WTO rules”, in practice tariffs and quotas.
To understand why this is a misunderstanding, we have to distinguish between the system’s “rules” and its members’ “commitments”.
The WTO rule book is about 500 pages long. Its contents are the agreements the membership has negotiated over the years since the 1940s. They cover a wide range of issues, applying to all members:
Each of these includes principles such as non-discrimination, obligations to make information available, and special treatment for developing countries.
Individual members’ commitments are also the result of negotiations, but they are different for each member. Currently, they probably run to around 30,000 pages. They list what each member has agreed to do to open its goods and services markets and to limit certain types of subsidies. It’s all negotiated and some do more than others.
The lists of commitments are called “schedules” because they usually start off with timetables for achieving what was agreed, for example to reduce a tariff in equal steps over 10 years from 25% to 15%. They limit how much a country can protect its domestic producers, so if the listed tariff is 15%, then that’s a maximum. The country is free to apply a tariff below 15% but if it wants to go above (as Ukraine has done recently with some of its tariffs), it has to renegotiate.
WTO membership therefore requires both accepting the rules and making individual commitments. Does the UK do both?
Yes, both. But it’s the commitments that are most immediately related to Brexit. They determine the conditions of the UK’s trade with the rest of the WTO, particularly for import tariffs, quotas, farm subsidies and services. And they are what the UK and EU will “fall back on” bilaterally if they do not have a free trade agreement of some kind.
As an EU member, the UK’s commitments are bundled with the EU’s. (If you really want to look at the gory details you can see these pages on goods and services schedules. You have been warned.)
To most people that means the UK’s commitments can be inferred from the EU’s. The EU’s present tariff ceiling on some types of shoes is 8%. That’s currently also the UK’s tariff ceiling for those types of shoes, and will continue to be after Brexit unless the UK wants to change it.
A tiny handful of people say that when the UK leaves the EU it will have to create its schedules of commitments from scratch. The UK’s schedules cannot be inferred from the EU’s. Therefore, according to this argument, if there is no agreement on the commitments on the day Britain leaves the union then it will not have schedules and therefore its membership will lapse.
But, as I said, for the time being at least, the people who count — WTO member governments — do not share that minority view.
In any case, if by Brexit day, March 29, 2019 — when the UK becomes an independent WTO member — a set of documents called schedules has been agreed in the WTO, then it won’t matter whether they should be seen as inferred or created from scratch.
Still, between now and Brexit day, some hard talking in the WTO lies ahead particularly for the UK, but also the EU.
The bargaining won’t be about the 8% tariff on shoes. It will be about the almost 300,000 tonnes of sheep and goat meat from New Zealand and elsewhere, which can now be imported duty-free into the EU. It will be about similar conditions for a range of other agricultural products.
These are the famous tariff-rate quotas (TRQs). I’ll look at them as simply as I can in part 2.
Updates: October 9, 2017 — minor edit to make text clearer; October 10, 2017 — adding links on UK in the WTO Photocredits: the author
Agriculture attachés from around the world may be surprised to learn that Vladimir Putin has taken an interest in their work in Geneva and is targeting Canada’s supply-managed dairy industry.
Or maybe they won’t as they realise a huge amount of journalistic licence has been injected into this account of a routine but important meeting at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on June 7 (The Globe and Mail, “Countries pile on in attack of Canada’s dairy regime”, June 18, 2017).
Does the Russian president really think the price of ultra-filtered milk is of such geopolitical significance that he ordered his agriculture officials at the WTO to intervene?
“Whoa. What? Russia — architect of central economic planning in the Soviet era — is lecturing Canada about the evils of supply management?
“That can’t be good.
“That Russian President Vladimir Putin has found common cause with some of Canada’s closest trading partners is a measure of the powerful forces lining up against this country’s embattled dairy industry.”
What really happened in that June 7 WTO meeting is much less dramatic and far more important than that. Canada should welcome Russia’s intervention, but for completely different reasons.
There were actually two separate issues in the meeting. One was an annual look at how countries are keeping their 2015 promise to scrap export subsidies. Canada still subsidises butter exports, which aroused comment from a number of countries.
But Russia “lecturing Canada about the evils of supply management” was no more withering than: “We’re interested too”, more or less.
(In fact, Russia did do a bit more than that. It joined Canada and other members of the “Cairns Group” of successful agricultural exporters in circulating a paper on export subsidies (pdf). There is no reference to anything related to supply management.)
Canada’s supply management (actually, milk classes) featured separately in 80 questions from New Zealand, Australia and the US. On this, Russia said nothing. Perhaps it should have.
Let’s take a step back. The WTO operates a system of agreements that its member countries have negotiated and signed. One of them is about reforming agricultural trade. WTO committees are where all its members can monitor how well the agreements are being implemented.
The Agriculture Committee does this three or four times a year. Questions and answers are key.
There are lots of them. Since the WTO was created in 1995, Canada alone has submitted 1,131 sets of questions on all agricultural trade issues in all but a couple of the 84 meetings. Canada did not lecture any other WTO member but occasionally asked whether a country’s policy was wise or legal.
In the same period, Canada has faced 156 sets of probing questions about its dairy policies, again in almost every meeting, except for a lull between 2000 and 2004.
And yes, the reason for those questions in both the WTO Agriculture Committee and in other meetings is surprise that a country supposedly in favour of liberalizing farm trade maintains strong protection for dairy. Such questions are not an “attack”, but Canada did have to defend the high import duties and subsidies that protect supply managed products in the stymied Doha Round negotiations.
In the June 7 meeting, the 80 questions Canada faced were grouped into 13 sets, one from New Zealand spread over five pages. Almost all were about Class 7 or other milk classes.
Canada wasn’t idle either. It asked 19 sets of questions, seeking answers from the US, EU, Ukraine, Panama, India and Turkey on a range of issues.
The meaning of questions
A lot of these questions are just seeking information: what a new programme does, how a programme works and so on. Some focus on particular policies, such as Canada’s milk classes, because the countries asking the questions — mainly New Zealand, Australia, the US and EU — are worried that these policies are a sneaky way of hiding subsidies.
In the WTO the questions can only really be turned into an “attack” if New Zealand and co believe Canada is subsidising beyond the limits it has agreed. Canada has only ever faced two legal challenges on dairy products, both in 1997 and both involving milk classes (this and this).
This kind of work is crucial if trade negotiations are going to have any meaning. You don’t just wake up, negotiate, sign an agreement and go back to sleep.
The agreement has to be implemented and the countries that negotiated the deal have to be able to see that everyone is honouring it.
This is hard work. For agriculture, all countries have to share information with each other (technically, they “notify the WTO”) on how much they have subsidised each year, what policies they have that might affect prices, production and exports, and what has been happening with imports, particularly if quotas are involved.
Just compiling and sharing the information can be a huge task. Once it’s available it becomes an absolutely essential way for countries to ask each other about the data so they can understand better, to monitor how level the playing field is in agriculture, and for the world at large to do the same.
Treating questions as attacks is therefore about as useful as a teacher complaining about questions from the class. This is about understanding and feedback.
So Russia’s involvement should also be welcomed. Russia is a new WTO member. It only joined in 2012. It’s still learning how the WTO works. The greater the interest it pays to WTO proceedings, the more it will be able to be a responsible WTO member. If it can ask 1,131 questions in the next two decades it will be as good a world trade citizen as Canada.
Who knows? President Putin might even learn something too.
A look at the UK, EU and WTO with an eye on Brexit. Includes a brief explanation of the WTO system, a taste of how negotiations work in the WTO, and the implications for the UK (and EU) as they prepare for Brexit and beyond
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED MAY 25, 2017 | UPDATED MAY 25, 2017
This page contains a link to download a handout on the UK, EU and WTO as Brexit approaches. It is slightly modified from a presentation given on May 20, 2017.
Negotiations as the starting point. Rights and obligations (reciprocal and non-reciprocal). Space for sound policy-making. Rules and commitments.
2. WTO negotiations: A taster
Consensus. Member-driven. The Doha Round. Negotiating coalitions (in agriculture). Concentric circles — when it’s impossible to negotiate properly in a large crowd. More than just an affair between governments: there are also negotiations at home.
3. Brexit and the WTO: Before, during and after
UK and EU “schedules” of commitments. What schedules are. How to establish the UK’s and EU’s schedules post-Brexit. The EU’s complex tariff profile. Tariffs (shoes and oranges). Tariff quotas (lamb, mutton). Domestic support for agriculture (trade-distorting). Agricultural export subsidies. Services. The cliff-edge and worse: what if there are no acceptable schedules by Brexit day?
Free trade agreements: UK-EU; UK-other WTO members. WTO rules on free trade agreements. Shallow to deep arrangements.
UK as champions of free trade. Policy choice from liberal to protectionist. Impact on bilateral free trade negotiations. UK positioning in WTO — current policy on agriculture puts it closer to the more protectionist group; handling the WTO agendas on regular work and negotiations.
Be warned. I’m not about to give a proper answer. This is an attempt to point to where the information can be found. There’s so much detail — 160 sub-sectors of it — I’ll wait for others to take up the baton
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED APRIL 12, 2017 | UPDATED MAY 4, 2017
A lot has been said about the impact on trade in goods if the UK and EU fail to strike a free trade deal after Brexit. They would rely on their WTO commitments, such as on tariffs and quotas. Much less has been said about the commitments on services, despite their importance to the UK economy.
This is not surprising. Firstly, countries’ commitments in the WTO on opening their services markets (known as services “schedules”) are unbelievably complicated. The WTO has a 2,000-word guide to understanding them (approximately 5 pages) — and even that is written for readers who are already familiar with a range of technicalities.
Secondly, although the EU member states’ commitments on services are combined in a single EU schedule, there are countless entries that apply only to individual member states. In other words, what applies in France may not apply in the UK, and so on.
For the EU, added to this complexity is the fact that authority (or “competence”) over services markets is divided between the EU Commission and the member states. This is unlike tariffs, which come under the customs union and are the central responsibility of the EU.
One of the results is that the EU’s present certified services schedule is for the 12-member EU that signed the original WTO agreement on services back in 1994 at the end of the 7-year Uruguay Round negotiations. A draft for the expansion to 15 members in 1995 still has not been certified because two decades later some of those 15 EU members still have not ratified it.
In other words, WTO certification for services is being held up within the EU. By contrast, its goods schedules have been delayed by objections or reservations from WTO members outside the EU.
The WTO’s page for the EU says the EU’s “services schedules include its member states but those who joined in 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden) and in May, 2004 […] also have schedules under their own names”. Presumably the same applies to the 2007 and 2013 expansions.
That said, further multilateral negotiations in 1995–1999 — after the Uruguay Round concluded in 1994 and after the WTO came into being the following year — added supplements on financial and telecommunications services. For the EU, these cover Austria, Finland and Sweden and therefore apply to the EU–15.
Finally, analysing the impact of trade barriers on goods is relatively straightforward since tariffs are numbers. Even where the numbers are complex, economists and statisticians can work with them with little difficulty.
But when Germany says accountancy services (other than auditing services) cannot be provided through a particular type of company — “‘GmbH & CoKG’ and ‘EWTV’” — quantifying that trade barrier or its impact is much more complicated.
As with goods, the EU’s services schedules have implications for Brexit in two ways:
They are needed to identify the UK’s own commitments to open its services markets to the rest of the WTO, except where the UK has a free trade agreement in services — and the EU will also have to modify its schedule to take account of the UK’s departure
If the UK and EU do not strike a free trade deal on services, their WTO schedules will define services trade between them. In other words, getting the schedules right is also important for the two because the schedules are a fall-back position in case they cannot strike a bilateral deal. The real impact would be considerably more complicated than just identifying the UK’s own schedules. For the UK, this is compounded by the fact that the schedules for 16 newer EU member states have not yet been incorporated into the EU’s (except for Austria, Finland and Sweden in financial services and telecoms). UK service providers seeking access to the EU single market might have to study up to 17 schedules to decide where best to set up business
Remember that a WTO schedule sets limits on how much protection a member provides to its producers. This is also true of services. Countries are free to open up more than their binding WTO commitments on services, provided they comply with general rules such as non-discrimination (where there are no exceptions in their schedules). But if they want to close markets beyond the limits in the schedules, they have to renegotiate.
Because of the complexity, this article is nothing more than an attempt to encourage a discussion by focusing on where to find the information rather than providing a comprehensive picture. I know less about trade in services than in goods. Hopefully the discussion can develop. But the overall picture for services may still be too complex to for a big-picture examination, unlike tariffs and tariff quotas.
Extracting UK’s services commitments from the EU’s
To recap what has been said elsewhere: although the UK is a WTO member and will continue to be after it leaves the EU, its WTO commitments — including on services — are bundled with the EU’s. So, in order to re-establish itself as a WTO member independent of the EU it will need to extract its commitments from those of the EU.
The EU’s goods and services schedules of commitments have still not yet been certified in the WTO for the enlargements up to the present 28 member states.
British International Trade Minister Greg Hands has now confirmed that work on the UK’s schedules “will be based on the most recent certified EU schedules, which is EU–25 for goods, and EC–12 for services. Since the schedules were certified the EU has entered into further WTO obligations, which we will also seek to replicate in our schedules.”
(He was replying to a written question from Kirsty Blackman, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster MP for Aberdeen North.)
THE FOUR MODES OF DELIVERY Mode 1. Cross-border supply. The supplier and customer are in different countries. The service is supplied across the border Mode 2. Consumption abroad. The customer travels abroad and receives a service from a service provider in the other country Mode 3. Commercial presence. The supplier sets up business in the same country as its customers Mode 4. Presence or movement of natural persons. Professionals and other service workers move to the customer’s country. Not to be confused with free movement of people
For services, experts say the task is fairly straightforward but time-consuming because of the volume of work required — around 160 types of services are covered, each having commitments on four “modes of delivery”. (There’s an example below.)
Officials will have to go through every provision in the EU’s services schedule that applies either to the EU–12 (or in some cases EU–15) or only to the UK. They will then have to transfer the provision into the UK’s schedule. This is not necessarily straight copy and paste.
Fortunately, judging by a quick electronic search for “UK”, only four limitations on market access are identified as applying specifically to the UK:
Medical services (mode 3 — commercial presence): “Establishment for doctors under the National Health Service is subject to medical manpower planning”
Veterinary services (mode 3 — commercial presence): “Access through partnership or natural persons only”. As I understand it, this means the UK reserves the right to prevent foreign veterinary companies from establishing in the UK. Foreign vets would have to form partnerships, be self-employed, or work for UK firms.
Banking and other financial services (mode 2 — consumption abroad): “Sterling issues, including privately led issues, can be lead managed only by a firm established in the European Economic Area”
Banking and other financial services (mode 2 — consumption abroad): “Inter-dealer brokers, which are a category of financial institutions dealing in Government debt, are required to be established in the European Economic Area and separately capitalised”
Those last two also show that some of the UK’s commitments are linked to the European Economic Area (EEA = the EU except Croatia, which is a provisional EEA member, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). Nothing has been said publicly about what happens to these provisions if, as seems likely, the UK leaves the EEA.
However, some provisions apply to all EU member states through Commission regulations, and these may also have to be sorted out to establish the UK’s services schedule.
The same is true of the EU’s “MFN exemptions”, another part of the services schedule, where members reserve the right to discriminate between other WTO members (more below).
On the plus side, the absence of certified services schedules for the enlarged EU might not be a problem. The general provisions for the EU and those specifically for the UK might not be different in the enlarged schedules, experts say — although nothing can be guaranteed.
The full list is in this document from 1991 (pdf), when it was first agreed during the Uruguay Round negotiations (in the document number, “MTN” stands for “multilateral trade negotiations”).
Each of these services can be delivered in four modes:
Mode 1. Cross-border supply. The supplier and customer are in different countries. The service is supplied across the border. For example a UK news agency supplying a news service to a newspaper in France
Mode 2. Consumption abroad. The customer travels to another country and receives a service from a supplier in that country. For example a tourist staying at a hotel abroad
Mode 3. Commercial presence. The supplier sets up business in the same country as its customers. For example a UK news agency setting up an office in France to supply French newspapers
Mode 4. Presence or movement of natural persons. Workers or staff move to the customer’s country. For example, the UK news agency sends a British manager to France to run the office there. Note that this is not the same as “free movement of people”. Mode 4 may require visas and work permits, which could be fast-tracked or easier to obtain.
(Some economists are now talking about a fifth “mode”: the value of services incorporated in goods, but this is not yet formally in the WTO.)
None of this means “unfettered free trade” in services. Services regulation is a separate topic in the WTO — liberalisation and deregulation are not the same. And all those pages of commitments are essentially lists of exceptions or limits on liberalisation.
GATS itself recognises the need to regulate and it allows countries to exclude “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority”. These include utilities, social security and any other public service such as health or education that is not supplied commercially, does not have market conditions, or is not in competition with other suppliers. An annex on air transport completely excludes airline landing rights.
The EU’s schedule goes further in setting limits on commercial access to its government services and only opens up education services that are privately-funded.
The EU’s latest WTO-certified services schedule is in five documents, although searches produce eight, three of them superceded. Seven of the eight are “commitments”; one is a list of “exemptions” from non-discrimination between other countries (“most-favoured nation” exemptions). There are a number of ways to find them:
In the WTO’s iTip database. This is the simplest way to find individual commitments. Here, although it is possible to search for the UK’s commitments, the results are for all the EU–12 (sometimes EU–15)
Use the links below to download pdf versions (correct at the time of writing)
First, the original 1994 commitments:
The main schedule (GATS/SC/31 of 15 April 1994 — 97 pages). This is in two parts: “horizontal” commitments applying to all services sectors (to page 11), and commitments for the specific sectors (the remaining pages). This schedule is for the EU–12 and still applies except where updated for financial and telecoms services, and “mode 4” by the supplements below.
Then, supplements updating commitments in specific sectors (or in one case a services “mode”) resulting from further WTO negotiations. Some include commitments for Austria, Finland and Sweden, which joined the EU in 1995:
WTO members’ commitments in services work in three ways:
Market access — how much of the market is open to foreign service providers or customers, and where that is limited
Non-discrimination (1) — equal treatment between foreign service providers and the country’s own suppliers or nationals, known as “national treatment”, and where that is limited
Non-discrimination (2) — exemptions on treating other WTO member countries equally, known as “most-favoured nation (MFN) treatment”
The first two are in the main services schedule of commitments. These identify where the member’s market is open, or where it reserves the right to restrict access, or to keep the market totally closed. This is expressed negatively as “limitations on market access” (column 2 in the example below).
Where there are no limitations, the market is open. Where there are no commitments (“unbound”), the country is free to close the market.
The commitments also list “limitations on national treatment” (column 3 below). Again, where there are no limitations the country will treat foreign companies as its own. Where there are limitations or no commitments at all (“unbound”), the country reserves the right to favour its own service providers.
Each of these is also specified for the four “modes” of supply, listed across the top of the page, with the limits on commitments running down the two central columns.
The EU’s main schedule document starts with “horizontal commitments” mainly dealing with limitations on investment, real estate ownership and “mode 4” (movement of professionals and other services workers or employees) across all services sectors.
Next come commitments in the 160 services sub-sectors — or more accurately, limitations on the commitments.
This is the section of the EU’s schedule on news and press agency services (chosen because it is one of the shorter items!):
For the second form of non-discrimination — most-favoured nation (MFN) — the exemptions are listed separately. They arise for a number of reasons, including preferential arrangements between countries that existed before the services were negotiated in the Uruguay Round.
This may explain why, for example, the EU reserves the right to discriminate in favour of Switzerland in a number of areas. The EU may be “grandfathering” sectoral deals with Switzerland that existed before 1994.
One question may be whether the UK and EU will want to “grandfather” preferences they currently or previously gave to each other when they separate their services schedules. This would add complications to the process.
In general, extracting the UK’s MFN exemptions from the EU’s schedule may also be more complicated because a large number of exemptions are under EU-wide regulations and some refer to regions in the EU that are outside the UK. How much of them will apply to the UK after leaving the EU remains to be seen. This may also be linked to the Great Repeal Act, in which the UK will convert EU laws and regulations into its own before deciding whether any need changing. It all adds to the work load.
Finally, what would the UK face?
So, apparently, extracting the UK’s services schedule from the EU’s may be fairly straightforward. But it will take some time. There may be complexities that need careful tailoring so they can apply to the UK. The UK wants to complete this within the 2-years prescribed for leaving the EU under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. Whether this can be done remains to be seen.
The UK might be able to avoid negotiations on its services schedule, so long as other WTO members don’t demand a say. But that might not be possible because other countries might argue that Brexit is upsetting a negotiated balance, as a former senior Swiss trade official suggests could also happen with agriculture, throwing into doubt the possibility that the UK would simply “replicate” all the relevant parts of the EU’s schedule.
Much more complex are the barriers that the UK and EU would face in each other’s markets if they cannot agree on free trade in services.
For the UK, the complexity lies in the details for the 160 services sub-sectors multiplied by the four modes of delivery, and the limitations on access and equal treatment that apply generally across the EU and in each of the remaining 27 member states. It also lies in finding out what EU member states are actually applying rather than their binding limits in the WTO.
EU ENLARGEMENTS OVER THE YEARS — January 1, 1958 (under GATT) — 6 founder members
6. Netherlands — January 1, 1973 — 3 new members
9. United Kingdom — January 1, 1981 — 1 new member
10. Greece — January 1, 1986 — 2 new members
12. Portugal — January 1, 1995 (WTO created) — 3 new members
15. Sweden — May 1, 2004 — 10 new members
16. Czech Republic
25. Slovakia — January 1, 2007 — 2 new members
27. Romania — July 1, 2013 — 1 new member
28. Croatia —
(More details here)
Updates: May 4, 2017 — added link to Bloomberg story Photocredits
• Aircraft: by Francois Van, Unsplash, Creative Commons public domain CC0
• São Paulo Stock Exchange (Bovespa): by Rafael Matsunaga, via Flickr, Creative Commons CC-by-2.0
• Taj Mahal: by Chee Huey Wong via Pixabay, Creative Commons public domain CC0
• Electrician: via Pixabay, Creative Commons public domain CC0
• India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath mobbed by reporters at the WTO, July 2008: WTO
Reaching agreement was one test of multilateralism. Making it work will be another
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED FEBRUARY 25, 2017 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 28, 2017
It’s always tempting, when a tough negotiation has concluded, to breathe a sigh of relief and proclaim “job done”. But with trade agreements, the job is rarely done. For the World Trade Organization’s shiny new Trade Facilitation Agreement, seriously hard work lies ahead if it is to achieve its potential.
On February 22, 2017, the WTO proclaimed that its new deal on slashing red tape at the border had “entered into force”, the “first multilateral deal” concluded in its 21 year history. This was a truly major achievement. But as the celebrations die down, it’s time to look at what it really means and the challenges that lie ahead.
“The real work is just beginning. This is the biggest reform of global trade in a generation. It can make a big difference for growth and development around the world. Now, working together, we have the responsibility to implement the agreement to make those benefits a reality.”
Trade facilitation is about cutting red tape and streamlining customs and other procedures as goods cross borders. That includes goods in transit to and from land-locked countries.
More specifically, the procedures covered in the agreement include governments providing information and allowing consultation on laws and regulations, how rulings and appeal are handled, impartiality and non-discrimination, fees, release and clearance of goods, cooperation between border agencies and between customs authorities, various formalities, and freedom of transit.
The ink was barely dry. The agreements of the 1986–94 Uruguay Round had been signed in April 1994. They took effect the following January, bringing into existence the World Trade Organization. The round was the largest and most complex trade negotiation ever to be concluded, and was supposed to be the one to end all trade rounds.
Then at the first WTO Ministerial Conference in Singapore in December 1996, the EU and others proposed trade facilitation as a new negotiation topic. It was packaged with three much more controversial issues — investment, competition policy and transparency in government procurement.
Opposition, particularly from developing countries meant these four “Singapore issues” were kicked into the long grass in the shape of discussion groups.
The resistance continued. When in 2001 the Doha Round was launched, the Singapore issues were only included as subject headings that would not turn into negotiations without “explicit consensus”.
It was not until 2004 — when the EU finally agreed to unbundle the four issues and a compromise could be struck — that the more palatable trade facilitation formally became a Doha Round negotiating topic. The three other issues fell by the wayside.
Work on trade facilitation continued — even after the Doha Round ground to a halt in 2008, principally over agriculture. A text was eventually agreed in the run up to the Bali ministerial conference in 2013.
Azevêdo, who had recently become director-general, introduced a new way of negotiating. Instead of working on the text in a small group of core countries and then taking it to the rest of the WTO, ambassadors from the entire membership (each with one assistant) sat through lengthy sessions as they worked line by line through the draft displayed on a screen.
Hailed at the time as a breakthrough technique to make negotiations totally inclusive (and avoid resentment at being left out), the method only worked once. Since then, the core groups have returned.
The draft agreed in Bali still had to be revised to make it legally correct. Even this was delayed until November 2014 as India held up approval while it sought changes to a decision on agriculture that it had originally agreed in Bali.
Importantly, that also means 51 countries had not (yet) ratified. More on this below. (How the ratifications are counted is discussed here).
2. Achievement: it will have a real impact
Although a latecomer to the Doha Round, trade facilitation became a priority for business associations. Import duties are now often low (apart from agriculture and some other sensitive products), meaning border processes have emerged as a significant part of trading costs.
Calculations suggest the benefits will be large. By how much depends on the assumptions and the type of economic model.
The WTO’s in-depth analysis is in its 2015 World Trade Report, with estimates for reductions in trading cost of up to 14.3%, global export expansion from $750bn to $3.6 trillion — the most frequently cited is the neat $1 trillion — and up to half a per cent per year added to world gross domestic product.
A brief survey by Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs of the Peterson Institute for International Economics think-tank cites other studies that also show “sizable potential gains”.
Understandably, the biggest gains will go to the countries that currently have the most cumbersome border procedures. If goods entering and leaving a country spend weeks at the port waiting for clearance, then the costs to that country’s trade, production and consumption are going to be high.
“The range of trade cost reduction will be between 9.6% and 23.1%. African countries and [least developed counties] are expected to see the biggest average reduction in trade costs (in excess of 16%) from full implementation of the TFA [Trade Facilitation Agreement]. Full implementation will reduce trade costs of manufactured goods by 18% and of agricultural goods by 10.4%. —
“Full implementation of the TFA also has the ability to reduce time to import by over a day and a half (a 47% reduction over the current average) and time to export by almost two days (a 91% reduction over the current average).”
The Trade Facilitation Agreement allows developing countries to set a condition on implementing some of the reforms — receiving assistance to help them cover the costs and introduce new technology — a first in WTO agreements. The onus is therefore as much on the donors as on the reformers.
3. But it has not entered into force everywhere
Drowned out by the fanfare is the actual meaning of “entered into force”.
Strictly speaking, the agreement has only been activated in the ratifying countries although they will apply their streamlined processes to trade with all other WTO members equally, including those that have not ratified.
WTO rules say once the two-thirds of the membership has been reached, an amendment does enter into force, but only in ratifying countries. Therefore, the Trade Facilitation Agreement has not yet entered into force in the 51 countries that — at the time of writing — have not ratified it. They are:
Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Barbados, Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Congo (Democratic Republic), Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Fiji, the Gambia, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Indonesia, Israel, Kuwait, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Suriname, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Tonga, Tunisia, Uganda, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
Among them are some significant traders such as Argentina, Indonesia and South Africa. Among the rest are many that would benefit most from streamlining their border procedures, particularly if they receive aid to do so.
Many countries that have not ratified may do so soon. Some have already submitted “Category A notifications” (listing measures they will implement immediately), even though they have not ratified (including Egypt and Indonesia). Many are actively preparing the details of what they will phase in, with and without assistance (C and B notifications).
(The rules on amending WTO agreements actually include a clause allowing the membership to expel countries that do not ratify in time. Of course, the word “expel” is not used. Instead: the country “shall be free to withdraw from the WTO or to remain a Member with the consent of the Ministerial Conference”. Incidentally, this provision seems to be the only way to kick a country out of the WTO. However, it is unlikely to be invoked here.)
4. The numbers should not be taken literally
It’s tempting to use simple figures to describe how important the Trade Facilitation Agreement is: “it will cut trading costs by 14.3%”, “it will increase trade by a trillion dollars”, and so on. At least Azevêdo uses “could” and “up to”.
Just as with any economic analysis this depends on the assumptions, the model and the data.
The assumptions: almost all calculations assume that the agreement is “fully” implemented, and they say so. The 2015 World Trade Report discusses this in some detail, including an assumed length of time for full implementation. But the report is 158 pages long and pretty technical. Few will even open it.
The truth is, we are a long way away from full implementation. For a start, those 51 countries that have not yet ratified will need to do so. Then, some countries will phase in some provisions over time, and some will require aid in order to do so — promised in principle but not legally committed.
According to the Trade Facilitation Agreement database, less than half of the agreement’s coverage has been notified for implementation by developing countries, whether for immediate implementation (Category A), delayed (B) or delayed and requiring technical assistance (C). A large number of Category A notifications (93) have been submitted but they do not cover all the provisions of the agreement.
Because developing countries are still compiling their needs, more notifications in Categories B (currently 9 countries notifying) and C (currently 8) can be expected, even from countries that have notified what they will implement immediately (A).
“Of course, fully implementing the TFA will be key to realizing the gains. The agreement specifies different tiers of obligations for developed and developing countries. For developing countries, the obligations are broken down between those implemented upon entry into force, those subject to a transition period, and those to follow with additional technical assistance. This built-in flexibility is important, but also serves as a reminder that the gains will take time to materialize. Making reforms will entail costs, and measures like investment in information technology and transport infrastructure, while not prerequisites, are important complements to trade facilitation reforms. Once the agreement is ratified, the challenge for the WTO will be monitoring progress towards implementation and ensuring political commitment to deliver the reforms.”
The model and the data: even more technical is the discussion in the 2015 World Trade Report about the methods used. (For the technically minded, computable general equilibrium (CGE) and gravity models produce considerably different estimates: see below.)
As for the data, some countries had implemented provisions that would be in the agreement. The analysis included creating index numbers from how much they had implemented and extrapolating these statistically to different categories of countries in the rest of the world.
Clearly calculations with this amount of construction are not meant to be predictions. They are estimates. However, the various estimates are consistent enough for us to conclude that the gains will be “pretty big” — if and when it’s all implemented.
Some expected benefits are much more difficult to model. One that is frequently cited is the transparency and predictability of bringing policies into the WTO system even if they would be implemented unilaterally anyway. This is what the 2015 World Trade Report says (pages 6–7):
“Given the widespread benefits from trade facilitation, every country should have an incentive to undertake reform on its own. The signing of the TFA, however, suggests that incorporating trade facilitation in a multilateral agreement creates additional benefits compared to what can be achieved unilaterally. —
“It provides greater legal certainty to the changes in trade procedures. It helps in the adoption of common approaches to customs and related matters, which should increase the gains from trade facilitation by harmonizing customs procedures worldwide. By foreseeing that richer members will provide assistance and support for capacity building to developing and [least developed country] members to help them implement the TFA, the agreement helps to match the supply of capacity building with the demand for it. The TFA could also help governments address a credibility problem by integrating their trade facilitation commitments into an institution with an effective enforcement mechanism.”
5. A lot of work lies ahead for rich and poor nations alike
WTO members will now create a Trade Facilitation Committee of the full membership, including countries that have not yet ratified. Its job will be to receive notifications describing what various members will implement and when, monitor how the agreement is being implemented and discuss related issues.
Two immediate tasks are to encourage the remaining members to ratify the agreement, and for all developing countries to complete their notifications of what they are implementing, whether immediately (A) or delayed (B) or delayed-requiring-assistance (C).
A third is to ensure the requests for technical assistance can be met. This requires well-designed assessments of needs from the developing countries concerned, and a real commitment to provide the assistance by developed countries and donor institutions.
In short, reaching agreement was one test of multilateralism. Making it work will be another.
6. Oh, and by the way, is it really the first?
Don’t shout this out too loud, but there are those who say trade facilitation is not the first multilateral trade deal since the WTO was created. They point to WTO deals in services on finance (twice), movement of natural persons and basic telecommunications.
But those agreements date back to 1995–97, soon after the WTO was born (and when trade facilitation was still a twinkle in the EU’s eye). That was an awfully long time ago.
The various databases and other resources available are rather confusing. You can access one, follow some links, and find yourself in another. However, the amount of available information is useful.
“Full implementation of the TFA has the potential to reduce trade costs by an average of 14.3 per cent. The computable general equilibrium (CGE) estimates see the TFA increasing global exports by between US$750 billion and US$1 trillion, depending on the speed and extent of implementation. The faster and more extensive the implementation, the greater the gains. TFA implementation has ramifications for the future trajectory of the global economy as well. This report estimates that over the 2015-30 horizon, implementation of the TFA could add up to 2.7 per cent a year to world export growth, and more than half a per cent a year to world GDP growth.
“The simulations using the gravity model provide higher estimates of the potential global export expansion arising from TFA implementation. They range from US$ 1.1 trillion to US$ 3.6 trillion depending on the extent to which the provisions of the TFA are implemented. Like the CGE simulation results, they show that the more fully the TFA is implemented, the greater are the gains for members.”
DISCLAIMER: This was written with the help of sources who asked not to be identified. It could not have been written without them. Consider it “Fake News” if you are so inclined
Can the UK unilaterally construct its own WTO Schedule of Commitments in agricultural products after Brexit? If the UK does construct its own Schedule, will this be legally binding on other WTO members, including the EU?
No, to both questions. First, the UK can and should draft its own schedules of commitments in agricultural products (and all other sectors). But they will not be legally secure until they have been certified by all WTO members — meaning until there are no WTO members with any objection. Once certified, they will be legally binding.
Second, a country’s schedules are not binding on other WTO members. They are commitments that the country has made to the rest of the membership. Other countries have their own schedules.
It is possible to trade without certified schedules. The EU continues to trade even though its goods schedule for the May 1, 2004 enlargement from 15 to 25 members was only certified 12 years later on 1 December 2016. The schedule for further enlargement to 27 and 28 members has not been certified.
The EU appears to operating with de facto schedules, for example revised tariff quotas appear in EU regulations. And it can trade without disruption, apparently because it has talked to key trading partners and adjusted its tariff quotas accordingly. The latest regulation for the lamb and mutton tariff quota states that the quota has been expanded for New Zealand, to accommodate Bulgaria and Romania becoming new EU members (but not yet for Croatia).
In other words, unilaterally creating the UK’s draft schedules without taking on board what other countries say could cause problems. Some negotiation will be needed so that the drafts are made reasonably acceptable to the UK’s trading partners, including the EU. But until the schedules are certified, the UK will be on legally uncertain ground, at best requiring complex legal arguments to defend the schedules’ contents. We don’t know how other countries would react.
To what extent is it possible to determine the EU-28’s current commitments in agricultural products in the WTO for (a) Tariffs (b) Tariff rate quotas (c) domestic support and (d) export subsidies for agricultural products? What impact might this have on (a) the UK’s negotiations with the EU and (b) the UK’s negotiations with other WTO members?
Strictly speaking, the EU’s legally binding WTO commitments are only its certified schedules, the latest for goods being for the EU-25 (WTO document WT/LET/1220 and attachments available by going to https://docs.wto.org and searching for WT/LET/1220).
This was only certified two months ago (effective from December 1, 2016 but circulated on December 14, 2016). Because it covers 10 new member states, it should be much closer to the schedule for the EU–28 than the one in force until the end of November (for the EU–15).
The 7th column lists a number of documents used in negotiations for the EU’s enlargement to 27 members, the latest being G/SECRET/32, “currently underway” — presumably referring to the status of negotiations on that draft. Documents in the series G/SECRET/… are so restricted that even WTO Secretariat staff cannot access them, except for a few key people.
There is no mention of any negotiation over the enlargement to 28 members when Croatia joined, which could be a problem when discussing the post-Brexit schedules of the UK and EU with other WTO members.
Before that, the WTO Secretariat’s report for the Trade Policy Review of the EU (the latest review, in document WT/TPR/S/317/Rev.1 of 21 October 2015) said:
“The current certified tariff schedule is the EU-15, effective 27 October 2012. The EU’s tariff concessions and agricultural commitments regarding agricultural market access, domestic support, and export subsidies to reflect the enlargement from 15 to 28 member States have not yet been formally agreed in the WTO. The EU submitted its EU-25 schedule for certification on 25 April 2014 and has initiated the procedures for the EU-28 schedule (section 22.214.171.124). With regard to the certified EU-25 services schedule, 18 EU member States have ratified the schedule. ”
As an EU member, the UK government ought to have access to the uncertified de facto schedules for the EU-28 both from Brussels (if not London) and any drafts at the WTO (although none appear to be with the WTO at the time of writing). This can be confirmed with government officials who ought to be able to provide better answers than I can on these points.
The public can detect the contents of the de facto schedules, but not always easily. There are two possible sources, both requiring work to compile the contents into one document: the EU’s own regulations, and its notifications to the WTO (under “The Agriculture Committee and official documents”, in the agriculture section of the WTO website, http://www.wto.org/agriculture#work).
Tariffs: these should be available from customs authorities, EU Trade or the UK Department of International Trade (bearing in mind applied tariffs can be lower than the legally bound rates). Most of them are unlikely to be very different from the tariffs in the schedule for the EU-15.
Tariff rate quotas: each of these should be available in separate EU regulations. They are also available in EU notifications on agricultural tariff quotas, but without the details from the schedules of how the quotas are divided among individual supplying countries.
Domestic support: the commitment is only one figure, for total aggregate measurement of support (AMS). The EU reports this in its domestic support notification along with an explanation of how much it has added for each expansion up to 28 members.
Export subsidies, also in the EU’s notifications. The latest for marketing year 2014/15 says the commitment is for the EU-25 while the actual reported subsidies are for the EU-28. Since the actual subsidies are considerably less than the limit, this difference is unimportant.
I would assume the UK’s negotiations over its schedules, both with the EU and other countries, ought to be based on the de facto schedules currently in use, because both the EU and the UK should have access to them.
We don’t know yet whether other countries would be willing to negotiate from the de facto pre-Brexit EU-27 schedules (with apparently nothing existing yet for the EU-28), but at this stage there seems to be no indication that they would object. Any that are holding back on certifying the schedules might have some reservations, but we don’t know what their objections are.
What, if any, are the legal and political challenges of splitting the EU-28’s WTO Schedule of Commitments on agriculture between the UK and the EU? To what extent can this issue be settled (a) by applying WTO law in dispute settlement proceedings before the WTO panels and/or Appellate Body and (b) by political negotiations between the UK and the EU and between the UK/EU and the other WTO members? Could the “Czechoslovakia” example act as a precedent?
The only areas where the UK and EU would split their commitments are tariff quotas (or tariff-rate quotas, TRQs) and agricultural subsidies. Most of the rest of schedules can remain unchanged. For example the UK can simply continue with the thousands of tariff commitments it currently has as an EU member. So my reply focuses on the quotas and subsidies.
I’m not a lawyer and cannot respond definitively to the legal points of (a). I do know that opinion is split. Some lawyers believe the UK can construct its schedules using legal principles and that if other countries object, the UK would probably prevail in any legal dispute. Some other lawyers disagree. The argument seems to be based on the idea that the entire UK schedule is obtained by using criteria based on WTO case law, leading to “rectification” (a more or less technical correction of the UK’s schedule implied in the EU’s schedule).
Many who have first-hand experience of how the WTO works, beyond the jurisprudence of dispute settlement cases, doubt whether other WTO members would accept the UK’s legal arguments, and whether the legalistic approach would be enough. I share that view.
For example, to account for current UK-EU trade in sheep and goat meat, almost 100,000 tonnes would be added to the combined UK and EU-27 tariff quota, around 33% more than its present size. That seems to stretch the idea of “rectification” (a technical correction) too far. It’s an adjustment arising from terminating a free trade deal (along with withdrawal from the rest of the single market), and introduced in order to take into account the volume of that duty-free trade between the UK and the EU.
Judging by recent experience in WTO negotiations, there may even be bargaining over which representative period to use as a basis for calculations. Possible options include averages over the last three or five years, including or excluding the highest and lowest numbers (an “Olympic average” excludes extreme points), and so on. I look at all of these points in detail here: https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/limits-of-possibility/
Generally, therefore, the UK and EU quotas should be settled by negotiation, where both political and commercial interests would play a part. Legal precedent would be a useful starting point, but probably not the conclusion. This would minimise any resentment and any trade disruption that might result from it.
Experts with inside experience of these processes have told me the Czech-Slovak split is not a suitable model. The split was under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, the WTO’s predecessor), and before the agriculture and services agreements were added to the multilateral trading system. The two countries swiftly set up a customs union, meaning little changed in goods trade between the two and between them and the rest of the world. As a result, the rest of the GATT membership had few problems with this, at a time when they also wanted to ease former Soviet bloc countries into the multilateral trading system. The two then became EU members. The sizes of the UK and EU and the scale of the tasks they face are quite different.
To what extent can the UK restrict the import of agricultural products because they do not meet the same quality and safety standards as those produced in the UK? If the UK adopted a precautionary approach to the import of agricultural products into the UK, to what extent would such an approach be compatible with WTO rules?
No WTO member can restrict imports purely on quality grounds. The WTO has criteria for requiring imports to meet certain safety, health and other standards. They are set out in the WTO agreements on Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures (SPS, dealing with food safety and animal and plant health), and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT, other standards, regulations, labelling, etc).
Broadly, the criteria include having to provide scientific evidence or a risk assessment that the standard or measure is necessary for health or safety, or adopting an internationally-recognised standard. (WTO members have also agreed non-binding codes of good regulatory practice.) So long as the standards meet the legally binding criteria the UK can (and does, through the EU) require imports to meet the same standards as its own products. It cannot set stricter standards on imports than on domestically-produced products. This is known as applying “national treatment”.
WTO agreements don’t mention a “precautionary principle” specifically. However, some experts see article 5.7 of the SPS Agreement as a means of adopting the principle at least temporarily until the government obtains “additional information necessary for a more objective assessment of risk” and reviews the measure “within a reasonable period of time”.
Why do free trade agreements rarely include agricultural products? What are the main challenges the UK would face when negotiating new free trade agreements covering agriculture with (a) the EU, (b) the USA, (c) Australia, (d) New Zealand and (e) other WTO members? What are the key lessons learnt by the EU or other WTO members negotiating such FTAs?
Many if not all free trade agreements actually include agricultural products on way or another, but they may have exemptions or delays on scrapping import duty on these products.
Agriculture is a particularly sensitive sector for various reasons: politics, culture, concerns about rural society, food security, and so on. It is often one of the last areas to be liberalised whether multilaterally or through free trade agreements. The most sensitive products have ended up with tariff quotas using prohibitively high out-of-quota tariffs. Some free trade agreements also have tariff quotas.
In general, the challenge the UK will face with all of those countries is to strike a balance between:
the demand for support and protection from the UK’s own farmers
the demand from UK consumers and processors for cheaper food and raw materials
the demand from exporters in the other countries for access to the UK market
the trade-off with UK producers in other sectors (such as services) wanting access to the other countries’ markets, which might entail opening up UK agriculture
For example, the UK might be willing to give Australia a larger quota for meat or dairy products in return for Australia allowing better access for British financial services or protecting British geographical indications such as Melton Mowbray pies or Scotch whisky. Some geographical indications are covered by bilateral agreements between the EU and the US, Australia and others. They mainly deal with wines and spirits since “new world” producers resist tightening protection for food and other products. It’s unclear whether those agreements will automatically apply to the UK. The full list is here: https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/gi-international_en. Some of the EU’s free trade agreements also include chapters on geographical indications, for example the one with South Korea.
The range of sensitive agricultural products is extensive: dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables, various cereals, sugar, and so on. Canada (not listed in the question) also has interests and sensitivities in the dairy sector.
Large books have been written about the lessons learnt. Some of the issues most frequently mentioned in current conversations include:
Agreement can be held up by complex ratification processes in federal systems (the Walloon parliament on the Canada-EU agreement, for example) or where parliaments are strong (the Trans Pacific Partnership was under threat in the US Congress even before President Trump pulled the plug)
Many agreements include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, which are deeply unpopular because, rightly or wrongly, they are seen to give large companies power over governments. Some experts think the mega-regionals (TPP and TTIP) would be easier to conclude without ISDS. The EU is proposing an alternative multilateral arbitration system, but it’s unclear whether this will be more acceptable
When negotiations are secret, they are an easy target. To gain public support, they should be more transparent, while allowing new ideas to be floated in confidence until they become more established.
(To declare an interest: I worked on information at the WTO Secretariat, where I think we were reasonably successful in striking a balance in the Doha Round negotiations. For example all the chairs’ drafts and other texts have been published as they have evolved, and the WTO website contains broad-brush accounts of the negotiating sessions, along with many of the members’ proposals. After the protests in Seattle in 1999, the WTO was rarely accused of secrecy, unlike with the negotiations under its predecessor, GATT.)
Which of the EU’s FTAs with other countries include agriculture? Will the UK be able to negotiate continued access to these agreements after Brexit?
The answer is more complex than the question suggests. Most if not all EU FTAs include agriculture in one way or another, including exemptions for specific products or lengthy phase-in periods, and various provisions on rules as well as tariffs. Experts who have studied the many agreements in detail may be able to answer better than I can.
The EU-South Korea FTA lists all agricultural products, with tariffs generally at zero immediately or gradually over periods of up to 21 years, depending on the product and whether it is imported into the EU or South Korea. In addition, some products escape tariff reductions completely, such as rice in both markets.
The customs union with Turkey includes a section on agriculture with the “common objective to move towards the free movement of agricultural products” and even to have a common agricultural policy, under a 22-year timetable in an “additional protocol” originally signed in 1970 but still not yet achieved.
As far as I can see, there is nothing to stop the UK negotiating continued access to these agreements provided the FTA partners also agree. Whether those negotiations lead to identical terms, or something different, depends on the negotiations. For some, the criteria will clearly be different. It’s hard to see the present EU agreements with Iceland and Norway being replicated with the UK, not least since they include the four freedoms of movement and contributions to the EU budget.
I have not seen any legal argument suggesting transferring the agreements to the UK will be automatic or a legal right.
Perhaps the most important question is what happens to the UK’s trade under the EU’s FTAs while the UK’s new FTA negotiations have not been concluded.
For all of these points, take for example an FTA between the UK and South Korea. This could be based on the EU-South Korea FTA, a 1,432-page document which includes the following:
around 70 pages of detailed terms, conditions and regulations for trade in goods and services, and intellectual property rights
well over 1,000 pages of commitments by the two sides on goods, including a number of tariff quotas
annexes on regulatory convergence and conformity on electronics, motor vehicles and parts, and pharmaceutical products and medical devices
an annex on agricultural safeguards. These are temporary tariff increases to deal with import surges — the present trigger levels are for imports from the EU, which would have to be adapted if separate figures are to be established for the UK and EU27
around 250 pages of commitments on services
a couple of pages on public procurement and build-operate-transfer contracts
about 25 pages on geographical indications for food (none of it British) as well as wines and spirits
institutional arrangements, including arbitration
other annexes containing, for example, definitions or criteria
Creating a UK version of this agreement has many similarities with creating the UK’s WTO schedules out of the EU’s plus any changes the UK and South Korea might want to make to the regulations.
That is just one of 44 agreements, but perhaps one of the most detailed. To ensure continuity, the UK should reach agreement with all of the EU’s 44 FTA partners by the time it leaves the EU. That sounds like extremely hard work, since during the same 2-year period the UK will already be negotiating with the EU, potential new FTA partners such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, India and others, and with all WTO members over its schedules.
If we want to understand the UK’s trade relations with the EU after Brexit we cannot say that without a UK-EU deal they will “fall back on WTO rules”
By Peter Ungphakorn POSTED FEBRUARY 8, 2017 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 15, 2017
Now that the UK is about to start negotiating its departure from the European Union, it’s important to understand the meaning of World Trade Organization (WTO) “rules”.
Why? Because people are talking about WTO rules as if they only kick in if the UK and EU fail to reach agreement on their future trade relationship — that only then would the UK and EU “fall back on WTO rules”. They are wrong.
The truth is: WTO rules already apply to the UK’s present trade relationship with the EU.
They will also apply to any future trade relationship between the two, whether there is a deal of some kind, or no deal at all — so long as the UK and the EU and its member states are members of the WTO.
Falling back on WTO “terms”
So what will the UK and EU fall back on if they cannot agree and the UK still leaves the EU?
They will fall back on commitments they have agreed in the WTO for trade with all other WTO members — except for those with whom they have a special (or “preferential”) trade arrangement, such as a free trade agreement.
This is sometimes called “WTO terms”, a better shorthand description than “WTO rules”. Some speak of “WTO tariffs”, which is more precise but doesn’t include services and agricultural subsidies.
Without a special deal between the UK and EU, trade between them will face import duties according to their WTO commitments for normal trade (without any free trade agreement).
The import duties (or “tariffs”) they charge on each other’s products will have to be the same as they charge on products from all WTO members except partners in free trade agreements. WTO non-discrimination rules would apply.
Limited amounts of some products — mainly agricultural — will be traded at low tariffs, with volumes outside those quantities facing much higher tariffs, so high that it might be impossible to import them. These are called tariff quotas.
British and European service industries are now relatively free to trade across the EU or to set up in other EU countries. Without a special deal, services trade between the UK and EU will revert to the much less liberal commitments they have made in the WTO on opening their markets to foreign services.
The commitments are explained in more detail here.
UK-EU relations and WTO “rules”, now and in the future
Even now, while the UK is a member of the EU and its single market, it is governed by WTO rules. These mainly deal with how the EU and its member states relate to the rest of the world. They also discipline how the single market and customs union themselves are set up.
The WTO rules affecting the UK and EU cover a large number of issues. They include:
WTO rules are actually negotiated agreements. The full package is here.
The EU’s member states have agreed to go beyond those WTO rules for much of their trade relations. Therefore when disputes arise between the member states, they are handled within the EU, for example if the UK objects to French restrictions over foot and mouth disease.
After Brexit, the UK and EU aim to have some kind of free trade agreement. This will have to come under WTO rules including one that says a free trade agreement in goods or a customs union must cover substantially all trade.
Another says an agreement in services has to have substantial sectoral coverage.
Even though they are both members of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the US and Canada have taken some disputes to both the WTO and NAFTA
In other words, WTO rules will prevent the UK and EU from having a free trade agreement only for the auto industry, aerospace and banking.
That long list of all the areas covered by WTO rules will also govern UK-EU relationships even if they have a comprehensive agreement.
Depending on the type of arbitration set out in their agreement, they could also find themselves facing each other at the WTO dispute settlement court.
The US and Canada have taken each other to WTO dispute settlement even though they have an arbitration mechanism within their North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Some cases have been taken to both the WTO and NAFTA.
Failure to understand this would mean a failure to understand the future UK-EU trade relationship.
Finally, WTO rights and obligations
To complete the picture, the WTO is a system of negotiated multilateral trade agreements. The whole package must now run close to 30,000 pages. It consists of two parts.
First is a rule book of about 500 pages. Among the key principles running through its wide-ranging coverage is non-discrimination in trade — between a country’s trading partners, and between foreign companies, products and people and its own.
The remaining 20 to 30,000 pages are the lists of commitments made by each of the WTO’s 164 members, the limits they have agreed on tariffs on tens of thousands of products and on agricultural subsidies, and the minimum market opening they have promised for various services.
Under those agreements, WTO members have rights (for example not to face discrimination, and to have access to other countries’ markets) and obligations (for example not to discriminate, or to keep markets open at least as much as they have committed).
The agreements come from negotiations. The WTO dispute settlement system is about whether those agreements are being implemented as promised or how they should be interpreted. All decisions are taken by the membership, almost always by consensus (meaning no one objects).
The clichés are: the WTO operates a rules-based trading system; and it is member-driven.
Updates: Februay 15, 2017 — adding link to WTO legal texts Photo credits: WTO via Flickr; Marrakesh signing by Peter Ungphakorn