UK, EU, WTO, Brexit primer — 2. Tariff quotas

Continuing a look at what lies behind the sudden surge in interest in the UK’s and EU’s relationship with the World Trade Organization. Part 2: the ABCs of tariff quotas

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By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED OCTOBER 7, 2017 | UPDATED OCTOBER 12, 2017

When the press learned that the UK and EU had agreed on a common approach for their talks with other World Trade Organization (WTO) members, the headlines spoke of a “breakthrough” and a “deal”. A closer look suggests this was an exaggeration. But the issue is important, nonetheless.

What the two had agreed was a joint approach for handling something called “tariff quotas” when dealing with other WTO members. (On October 12, that joint approach was published in a letter to WTO members (pdf).) No sooner had the story broken than opposition emerged in a letter that the US, New Zealand and some other countries had sent to the British and EU ambassadors in Geneva.

Bakery products
Tariff quotas are typically on food and other sensitive products

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Tariff quotas
The real deal
Months of talks
Jochem Sprenger’s tweets

Suddenly tariff quotas were really juicy. Critics saw the developments as proof that London’s Brexit plans were in disarray, and that ministers were misguided (or deliberately misleading the public) in claiming it would be easy to secure future free trade deals with the likes of the US and New Zealand. Politico’s headline said “post-Brexit trade woes deepen”.

This was “a complete, unmitigated disaster for the Brexiteers, Liam Fox, and the UK as a whole”, one member of parliament initially tweeted. She subsequently toned her comment down by clarifying “this is technical. UK has to lodge new schedules at WTO. Gov was planning to do this using method that requires little approval,” before continuing to criticise the government for getting it wrong.

As Adam, my editor, said: tariff quotas were now mainstream. Even The Guardian had an editorial on the subject.

The excitement partly arose because this issue is so esoteric and technically complex that its significance is difficult to assess. Little wonder people struggled to judge realistically what it meant. It was easy fodder for the emotions Brexit has been stirring for months.

The use of “breakthrough” was defended on the grounds that it was the first time the UK and EU had agreed on anything in their fraught separation talks.

Perhaps a valid point, but this was not really about their future relationship, and “breakthrough” suggests the UK and EU had previously been deadlocked on this issue as well.

There is little public evidence to support that, although a Dutch official indicated on Twitter that some differences did need sorting out, so perhaps there was a breakthrough of a kind. Another tweet suggests the agreed approach was vaguer than the original reports suggested and might fall short of a “deal” (confirmed when the UK-EU letter was published — see details below).

Basically, the issue is so complex that much of it could easily have been left to civil service trade technicians on the two sides to come up with a common approach.

It’s unlikely David Davis and Michel Barnier would get their hands dirty on this one. But it was part of phase 1 (on separation terms) of the “Article 50” Brexit talks. Paragraph 13 of the EU’s negotiating guidelines deals broadly with honouring international commitments. The WTO is only one of these.

13. Following the withdrawal, the United Kingdom will no longer be covered by agreements concluded by the Union or by Member States acting on its behalf or by the Union and its Member States acting jointly. The Union will continue to have its rights and obligations in relation to international agreements. In this respect, the European Council expects the United Kingdom to honour its share of all international commitments contracted in the context of its EU membership. In such instances, a constructive dialogue with the United Kingdom on a possible common approach towards third country partners, international organisations and conventions concerned should be engaged.

Free from political supervision, technical-level officials often collaborate well to produce a shared result. After all, for tariff quotas there is nothing mysterious about the possible approach. I even explored it here.

300,000-tonne tariff quota
Quantities within the quota are duty-free. Outside, the tariff is 100%

Tariff quotasBack to top

Basically, “tariff quotas” are where limited quantities of imports are allowed into a country duty-free or at low duty. Quantities beyond those limits would normally be charged high duties. Because they are all about tariff rates for specific quantities, they are also called “tariff-rate quotas” or TRQs.

They are used on products that are sensitive: typically food and other agricultural goods. They are a compromise between: protecting domestic farmers and other producers with high import duties; and demands from exporters to be allowed full access to the market. The compromise is to have low or zero tariffs, but only for limited quantities. This also allows consumers to buy some cheaper or more varied food than if there were no quotas.

When a WTO member has tariff quotas, they are included in its “schedules” or lists of commitments (explained in part 1).

The EU has around 100 — the exact figure depending on how they are counted — on cheese, butter, beef, poultry, sheep and goat meat, other meat, live animals, sugar, citrus and other fruit, fruit juice, some vegetables, eggs, cereals and more.

So does the UK because as an EU member, the UK’s commitments are part of the EU’s. When it leaves, the UK will need to have its own independent set. Most of this can be copied from the EU’s, meaning the UK would simply continue with the tariff ceilings and commitments on opening services markets that it currently has through the EU.

But for a handful of items, copying is not possible. Perhaps easier to handle among these are farm subsidy limits. The most complex and contentious are tariff quotas. This is where the common UK-EU approach comes in.

Take lamb (strictly speaking, “sheep and goat meat”). The EU currently allows around 300,000 tonnes to be imported duty-free. Some of that goes to the UK, some to other EU members. Once imported into one EU country it can be shipped on freely to another.

After Brexit, the UK and EU would normally have separate tariff quotas. What size should the UK’s be? And what about the EU’s?

A basic intuitive approach would be this. If 40% of the EU’s imports go to the UK and 60% go to the other countries, then the quota might also be split 40:60 — the UK’s tariff quota would be 120,000 tonnes and the EU’s would be 180,000. (The actual ratio seems to be closer to 50:50.)

This particular quota is actually subdivided between different suppliers, New Zealand having just over 200,000 tonnes. Although New Zealand could export all of that to any single EU member, in practice around 48% goes to the UK and 52% to the rest of the EU. So the UK’s tariff quota for New Zealand lamb could be 48% of 200,000 tonnes (96,000 tonnes) leaving the EU with a quota of 104,000 tonnes.

It ought to have been easy for the technicians on both sides to agree to those principles for their common approach.

The real challenge would have been grappling with the numbers, a much more difficult and time-consuming task, but a technical one.

Should the trade data be based on a certain number of years (perhaps an average of three or five) and if so which years (up to the start of the separation talks or to the date of the actual separation)? What kind of average should be used for the data (a straight three-year average, or a five-year “Olympic average” which excludes the highest and lowest numbers)? How should imports that enter the EU through other countries but end up consumed in the UK be identified, for example imports via Rotterdam? What should be done when data is unavailable? And so on.

These are the kinds of questions that can occupy economic statisticians for months. But unless they actually have a significant impact on UK and EU commercial interests, they are unlikely to attract the attention of the political masters.

We still don’t know exactly how the discussions went. There is no public information so far to confirm what actually happened.

The agreement was described as preliminary (which Sprenger’s tweets seemed to confirm). It reportedly needed the approval of the EU member states, but the EU also planned to submit it to WTO members later in October on the sidelines of the WTO Agriculture Committee’s meetings, suggesting it believes approval within the EU will be straightforward.

Agreeing common solutions to statistical problems is not what most people would consider a breakthrough in Brexit talks. Nor is it a “deal”, in the sense that a deal usually involves paying something in order to get something else in return.

It also tells us next to nothing about the actual Brexit separation terms or the future relationship between the UK and EU.

The real dealBack to top

It’s what happens next that will involve payment. This could take months at least. And the bargaining will not be between the UK and the EU since their own bilateral trade is apparently being kept out of the picture.

It will be between the UK (and separately the EU–27) and the rest of the WTO. To what extent those two sets of negotiations merge remains to be seen.

Already seven countries have rejected (pdf) the UK-EU approach.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Thailand, the US, and Uruguay wrote to the UK and EU ambassadors in Geneva:

“We are aware of media reports suggesting the possibility of a bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union 27 countries about splitting Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs) based on historical averages. We would like to record that such an outcome would not be consistent with the principle of leaving other World Trade Organization Members no worse off, nor fully honour the existing access commitment. We cannot accept such an agreement.”

The letter includes a number of legal justifications including this assertion:  “The modification of these TRQ access arrangements cannot credibly be achieved through a technical rectification. None of these arrangements should be modified without our agreement.” And “the whole membership of the organization may take an interest.”

What these countries are arguing is that dealing with post Brexit tariff quotas is not just a technical correction (“rectification”) of the implied commitments of the EU–27 and the UK. Under WTO procedures, rectification is quick and requires little or no negotiation. On the other hand, a “modification” does require talking particularly with countries that were part of the original negotiations or have a substantial interest.

The key difference between the two sides is on the meaning of leaving other WTO members “no worse off” and honouring “the existing access commitment”.

Take that example of splitting the 300,000-tonne EU–28 quota into 120,000 tonnes for the UK and 180,000 tonnes for the EU. The combined total is still 300,000 tonnes.

But the seven are arguing that the commercial value to them would be reduced because they have less flexibility to choose where to export their product to. While the UK is still in the EU, they can switch from selling less to the UK and more to Germany or France if the price is better, for example. Under the joint UK-EU approach that freedom would be constrained by the separate quotas.

At the very least, this suggests the seven would want: either, quotas that are larger than 120,000 tonnes (UK) and 180,000 (EU–27), meaning more than 300,000 tonnes in total; or, continued freedom to choose where to sell their products in the 28 countries that are now the EU.

That freedom would continue to exist, for example, if the UK ends up back in the single market and customs union with unchanged tariff quotas. In that case, the seven would drop their demand to negotiate.

The rejection does not mean the talks in the WTO are deadlocked, doomed or an “unmitigated disaster”. They haven’t even really started yet.

The UK, EU and some of the rest of the WTO have now declared their starting positions. Months of negotiations will follow. Any agreement reached after that will be the real deal. It will clear the way for trade to continue.

Months of talk aheadBack to top

One journalist I spoke to was surprised that we might have to wait until this time next year at the earliest to find out what the deal is. We should not be surprised. Nothing happens quickly in the WTO.

These are pretty complicated issues. There are around 100 tariff quotas. At each stage, the negotiators in Geneva will have to consult officials, governments, farmers’ groups and exporters back home. The EU will have to consult the 27 member states too. The UK is understood to be aiming to submit its draft schedules of commitments sometime next year.

What if there is no agreement by Brexit day? Some lawyers argue that so long as the UK and EU have constructed their proposed tariff quotas according to legal principles and the case history of WTO disputes, London and Brussels can simply go ahead without needing other countries’ approval. Objecting countries would struggle to win a legal challenge against the two in the WTO, according to this argument.

Other trade experts and experienced negotiators disagree. They believe a legal challenge might be possible, with the risk that trade could be disrupted. Some argue that WTO dispute settlement rulings are not always predictable. In this case the adjudicators would be asked how WTO law would handle tough questions such as “no worse off” and honouring “the existing access commitment”. The worst outcome would be a soured atmosphere leading to tit-for-tat restrictions on imports.

For the time being the point is moot. Those actually involved in the talks say they want to avoid both disruption to trade, and litigation in the WTO. That would require some sort of deal by Brexit day.

The UK’s and EU–27’s schedules of WTO commitments would not necessarily need to be certified in the WTO by that date. The EU has been trading smoothly despite its schedules for various phases of enlargement remaining uncertified for years. To work in practice, the UK and EU would have to have learnt from the negotiations what tariff quotas would be reasonably acceptable to the other WTO members concerned.

One other point that has received little attention: if other WTO members have tariff quotas that specify the EU as a supplier, then those quotas will have to be split between the UK and EU–27 too. But that’s another story.

Part 1 on WTO membership is here

Follow-up: Jochem Sprenger’s tweetsBack to top

After this article was published, Dutch Foreign Ministry official Jochem Sprenger tweeted:

Note “rectification”, which the US and others rejected.

The discussion included the UK asking the EU for help in transferring its free trade agreements with other countries (such as Canada and South Korea) to the UK, Sprenger went on.

And he confirmed that there was no attempt to include UK-EU trade in the tariff-quotas.

Then he said there is still no consensus on how to split the quotas. Only a “common letter”.

And finally he said the EU Commission should have published the UK-EU letter

The letter was published three days later on October 11 (pdf). It seems to confirm Sprenger’s tweets. “Rectification” does not appear in it, and nor does any specific reference to “modification” or negotiating rights. If the two sides (UK and EU versus other WTO members) haggle over the legal status of the talks, then we can expect delays to the discussion of the actual tariff quotas.


Updates:
• October 9, 2017 — adding new information from Jochem Sprenger’s tweets
• October 12, 2017 — adding UK-EU letter and references to it in the story
Photocredits
: Pixabay, Pexels CC0


UK, EU, WTO, Brexit primer — 1. WTO membership

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).

Room W, WTO
In the WTO, the EU generally speaks on behalf of its member states, including the UK

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The UK is a member
The UK will still be a member

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 memberBack to top

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.

UK signed WTO agreement
The UK signed the 1994 agreement setting up the WTO. From the UN Treaty Collection

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 memberBack to top

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”.

Marrakesh Ministerial Conference 1994 end of Uruguay Round
Rules and commtiments: WTO agreements at the signing ceremony, Marrakesh, 1994. The rule book is on the far left. The rest are more than 20,000 pages of the original 123 members’ individual 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


Who put the boot into Canadian dairy and why?

When journalists don’t understand WTO work they jump to wrong conclusions. The questions Canada faced in the Agriculture Committee were not a geopolitical attack. They were more important than that

By Robert Wolfe and Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 23, 2017 | UPDATED JUNE 24, 2017

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).

Dairy cow Canada
Canada has faced 156 sets of questions about its dairy policies, in almost every meeting except for a four-year lull

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.”

The Globe & Mail June 18, 2017

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 questionsBack to top

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.


Robert Wolfe is Professor of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and co-editor of a new IRPP book, Redesigning Canadian Trade Policies for New Global Realities. Follow him @BobWolfeSPS

Updates: June 24, 2017 — added text and links on joint Cairns Group and Russia paper on export subsidies; added clarification that probing questions about Canada’s dairy policies do reflect concern

Photocredits: Public domain CC0 except Holstein cow in Nova Scotia 2015 by Dennis Jarvis, Halifax, Canada CC BY-SA 2.0


UK, EU & WTO — a presentation

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.

It was part of a series of lectures on “Policy in Practice”, under the London School of Economics’ Executive Master in Public Administration programme.

Champions of free trade

Presentation cover The presentation can be downloaded as a handout here (pdf).

It is intended as a taster. It does contain a lot of detail, which can be explored further. But the main purpose is to provide a feel for how the detail and the bigger picture relate.

This is what the presentation contains, in three parts on the WTO, WTO negotiations and Brexit:

The WTO - basics

1. The WTO: BasicsBack to top

Negotiations as the starting point. Rights and obligations (reciprocal and non-reciprocal). Space for sound policy-making. Rules and commitments.

WTO negotiations - a taster

2. WTO negotiations: A tasterBack to top

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.

Brexit and the WTO - before during and after

3. Brexit and the WTO: Before, during and afterBack to top

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.


Recommended reading: Oliver Ilott, Ines Stelk, Jill Rutter: Taking back control of trade policy. Institute for Government, May 17, 2017

Download the presentation as a handout here (pdf).


Updates: None
Photocredits
: See presentation


If the EU and UK fall back on WTO commitments what does this mean for services?

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.

BA jumbo CC0
Air transport: WTO commitments on all services are unbelievably complicated, but landing rights are totally excluded

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Extracting UK’s services commitments from the EU’s
Types and modes of services
The EU’s services schedules
What the schedules contain
Finally, what would the UK face?

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.

Sao Paulo Stock Exchange by Rafael Matsunaga Wikimedia Flickr CC-by-2
Financial services: Some of the UK’s services commitments are reserved for companies in the European Economic Area
Extracting UK’s services commitments from the EU’sBack to top

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.)

How this might be done for goods (particularly agricultural products) is discussed in several other articles in this blog.

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.

Tourists Taj Mahal Chee Huey Wong CC0
Tourism is mode 2: the customer travels to consume the service abroad
Types and modes of servicesBack to top

The certified services schedules are annexed to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), the WTO’s umbrella agreement for the sector.

The GATS covers around 160 different types of services, grouped under 12 broad headings and sub-divided down to three levels:

  • Business services (professional, computer, R&D, real estate, rental and leasing, etc)
  • Communication services (postal, courier, telecommunications, audiovisual, etc)
  • Construction and related engineering services
  • Distribution services (commission agents, wholesale, retail, etc)
  • Educational services
  • Environmental services (sewage, refuse, sanitation, etc)
  • Financial services (insurance, banking, etc)
  • Health related and social services
  • Tourism and travel related services (hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, tour operators, etc)
  • Recreational, cultural and sporting services (entertainment, news, libraries and museums, sport, etc)
  • Transport services (sea, inland waterways, air, space, rail, road, pipeline, cargo handling, etc)
  • Other services

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.

GATS and services issues in the WTO are explained here (introduction), here (FAQs), and here (more technical, pdf).

electrician by Skeeze pixabay CC0
Mode 4 (presence of natural persons): giving easier access to visas and work permits is one of the toughest issues in services
The EU’s services schedulesBack to top

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)
  • Download the documents using these pre-configured searches, and selecting “European Union”
  • Use the links below to download pdf versions (correct at the time of writing)

First, the original 1994 commitments:

  1. 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.
  2. Exemptions from non-discrimination (“MFN exemptions”) allowing the EU to discriminate in certain cases (GATS/EL/31 of 15 April 1994 — 13 pages). This currently applies to the EU–12

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:

  1. Financial services, supplement 1 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.1 of 28 July 1995 — 27 pages): replacing the original financial services commitments of the EU–12, Austria, Finland and Sweden
  2. Financial services, supplement 1, revision 1 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.1/Rev.1 of 4 October 1995 — 27 pages): again replacing the original financial services commitments of the EU–12, Austria, Finland and Sweden
  3. “Mode 4” (“movement of natural persons”), supplement 2 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.2 of 28 July 1995 — 20 pages): replacing the “mode 4” provisions in the original EU–12 commitment. These are the EU–12’s current “mode 4” commitments
  4. Telecommunications services, supplement 3 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.3 of 11 April 1997 — 10 pages): replacing the original telecoms commitments of the EU–12, Austria, Finland and Sweden. These are the EU–15’s current telecoms commitments
  5. Financial services, supplement 4 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.4 of 26 February 1998 — 24 pages): replacing supplement 1 revision 1
  6. Financial services, supplement 4, revision 1 (GATS/SC/31/Suppl.4/Rev.1 of 18 November 1999 — 19 pages): replacing supplement 4. These are the EU–15’s current financial services commitments

Kamal Nath ambush | WTO July 2008
News services: France, Italy and Portugal reserve the right to impose some restrictions on foreign access to their markets
What the schedules containBack to top

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!):

EU services commitments on news services
Click the image to see it full size. EU–12 commitments on news services

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?Back to top

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.

Assessing that is beyond me. Over to you.

(Here’s one answer: “Brexit Means U.K. Lawyers and Bankers May Not Be at Your Service” — Bloomberg May 4, 2017)


Back to top

EU ENLARGEMENTS OVER THE YEARS

January 1, 1958 (under GATT) — 6 founder members
1. Belgium
2. Germany
3. France
4. Italy
5. Luxembourg
6. Netherlands

January 1, 1973 — 3 new members
7. Denmark
8. Ireland
9. United Kingdom

January 1, 1981 — 1 new member
10. Greece

January 1, 1986 — 2 new members
11. Spain
12. Portugal

January 1, 1995 (WTO created) — 3 new members
13. Austria
14. Finland
15. Sweden

May 1, 2004 — 10 new members
16. Czech Republic
17. Estonia
18. Cyprus
19. Latvia
20. Lithuania
21. Hungary
22. Malta
23. Poland
24. Slovenia
25. Slovakia

January 1, 2007 — 2 new members
26. Bulgaria
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


Alternative thinking: Out of the box for Brexit — and radically

CLEMENS BOONEKAMP proposes a surprising alternative on Brexit’s trade front. Don’t negotiate. Announce.

Guest column by Clemens Boonekamp
Partner at IDEAS Centre, former director of Agriculture and Trade Policy Reviews, WTO Secretariat
POSTED FEBRUARY 12, 2017 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 12, 2017


The UK Prime Minister has opted for a hard Brexit. She is correct. A soft Brexit would have been unlikely. The UK has been a balancing force in Europe for centuries. This role is in question with Brexit, causing disquiet and some anger on the continent. A number of continental EU members also have their own “leave” constituencies with mainstream leaders ready to show that parting is not without cost.

Pexels.com CC0
The UK is in a box. Its future trade relations, and hence its economic actors, are uncertain

These factors alone would have made it naive to think that the “single market” would be available for anything less than the “four freedoms”, substantial payments and no seat at the table — a situation considerably inferior to the EU-membership that the voters rejected!

Making it an issue in the Brexit negotiations could have led to an embarrassing rebuff, with the economy then in an increased state of uncertainty, with its attendant costs. A customs union might be possible but then the UK would forego its independence to negotiate bilateral trade deals.

Radical alternative

There is a radical alternative on the trade front. Don’t negotiate. Announce, after invoking Article 50, that:

  • The UK will “cut and paste” the EU schedules of commitments in the WTO — which are the UK’s schedules as a member of the WTO in its own right
  • But in agriculture the UK will not have an AMS (the right to use trade-distorting domestic support beyond the “de minimis” 5% of the value of production; AMS is a measure of this, the aggregate measurement of support)
  • The UK will scrap all tariff quotas, applying the in-quota rates to unlimited quantities of imports on those lines (or products) where the EU has tariff quotas
  • The UK will trade on an “MFN basis” with the EU — trade between the UK and EU will have the same tariffs as trade between the UK and the rest of the world
  • The UK could also use this opportunity to simplify some extremely complicated tariffs it inherits from the EU, such as on processed agricultural products, where the rates depend on how much milk, sugar and other ingredients they contain. It could apply the lowest rates on all products where the EU has multiple rates

This has advantages: it is quick and clean, gets the job done, reduces uncertainty, avoids potential rebuffs and frees the UK to pursue trade relations with third parties.

It can take control by following a strategy that is bold and independent, simply not negotiating on trade and being generous on all other matters, to the benefit of all

In addition, it may reduce calls for compensation from those who will argue, correctly, that an x% percent tariff into the UK market is not worth as much as the same tariff into the previous EU–28 or, for that matter, the “new” EU–27 market — “nullification and impairment” of expected WTO rights is a likely issue.

Also, there will be a sense of schadenfreude in that there will be WTO members who will want to see the post-Brexit EU AMS reduced and the in-quota amounts of its TRQs (tariff-rate quotas) maintained, while some EU members will argue for the opposite — i.e. the EU will have a problem.

The UK can then move forward on its own choices for its trade relations, buttressed by its WTO membership. Proceed, perhaps, as follows:

  • maintain the generalised system of preferences for developing countries (GSP) provisions of the EU, as well its “everything but arms” duty free/ quota free access for least developed countries (LDCs)
  • propose a free trade agreement (FTA) to the US, offering essentially free access for goods and services, albeit with carefully circumscribed labour mobility

On the latter, knowing that the gains from liberalisation accrue mainly to those that undertake it and that FTAs need not be symmetric, accept any reasonable offer from the US — the point being to get it done quickly, reducing uncertainty and laying the basis for an independent trade framework.

Propose the same to the Commonwealth and China.  When done, and acting with alacrity and generosity it might well happen in reasonably short order, re-approach the EU, suggesting similar terms but with some emphasis on mutual recognition and the financial “passport”. If successful, the UK would establish itself as a free-trade haven in Europe, with the economy to reap the benefits.

Difficulties

There are, of course, difficulties. It is probably impossible to know the “cost” of Brexit for the UK economy, but whatever it is there is likely to be a perceived need to safeguard some sensitive sectors. Agriculture, politically important, is an example.

Following Brexit the UK will “lose” EU support to its agricultural sector, amounting to upwards of €4 billion a year, equivalent to some 14% of its agricultural output.

In addition, around 60% of the UK’s agricultural exports go to the EU and would face an average tariff of almost 11%; assuming a unitary price-responsiveness, this could result in an annual income loss for the sector of up to €1.5 billion (and though the “responsiveness” may seem high it serves also as a proxy for areas such as lamb, where the EU has tariff quotas and where the UK loss of market share is almost certain to be substantial).

Making good, WTO-legally

There would then be pressure for the government to make good these revenue shortfalls — which, incidentally, probably could be done comfortably in a WTO-legal manner by use of the “de-minimis” (permitted trade-distorting support of up to 5% of the value of production) and Green Box (non-trade distorting support) provisions of the WTO’s Agriculture Agreement.

Other sensitive sectors could also face significant revenue “losses”, including motor vehicles, which would face an average tariff of around 10% into the EU for a possible loss also of some €1.5 billion a year. The government could consider compensating such sensitive sectors with performance contingent, time-bound, industrial policy measures.

It is not inconceivable that Brexit-related support to sensitive sectors could add well over 1% to government expenditures. This is doable, particularly given the presently low borrowing costs. But it is not a long-term solution; that requires market access, among a range of factors, and growth. The above may be a quick step in that direction.

Other issues will need to be settled with the EU for Brexit, including compensation and pensions. On the former, scrupulously pay the “rent, water and light” until you “close the door behind you”.  On the latter, it may be an EU obligation but it does involve UK citizens; accommodation and generosity could well be good domestic and foreign policy.

The UK is in a box. Its future trade relations, and hence its economic actors, are uncertain. It can take control by following a strategy that is bold and independent, simply not negotiating on trade and being generous on all other matters, to the benefit of all.


Like this blog as a whole, guest contributions are intended to contribute to the debate. I don’t necessarily agree with them.

Updates: None so far
Photo credit: pexels.com Creative Commons CC0


Questions on Brexit, agriculture, WTO schedules, standards, free trade agreements

Written replies to questions for the inquiry of the UK House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee’s inquiry on ‘Brexit: agriculture’, February 8, 2017

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED FEBRUARY 9, 2017 | UPDATED FEBRUARY 9, 2017

On February 8, 2017 the UK House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee’s inquiry on Brexit: agriculture published two sets written replies to questions.

My answers are below. They can also be found on the Parliament website: here (ABR0001) and pdf.

Also published were replies and statements from Christian Häberli of the World Trade Institute, Bern, Switzerland: browse, or pdf

Full coverage including transcripts and videos of the hearings is here.

alanmatthews-josephmcmahon-sub-ctte-7feb2017-from-web-page
Alan Matthews (left) and Joseph McMahon speaking to the House of Lords EU Energy and Enviornment Sub-Committee, February 7, 2017. Click the image to watch the session

THE QUESTIONS

1.    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?
2.    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?
3.    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?
4.    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?
5.    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?
6.    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?

  1. 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? Back to top

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.

  1. 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? Back to top

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).

What about the EU–27 and EU–28? The current situation with the EU’s goods schedule is on the WTO website here: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/schedules_e/goods_schedules_table_e.htm#eec, although at the time of writing this has not been updated to include the certified EU–25 schedule.

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.[1] 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[2] and has initiated the procedures for the EU-28 schedule (section 3.1.4.1). With regard to the certified EU-25 services schedule, 18 EU member States have ratified the schedule.[3] ”

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.

  1. 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?Back to top

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.

  1. 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? Back to top

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”.

  1. 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?Back to top

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.)

  1. 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?Back to top

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.

On its website, http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/agreements/, the EU lists 44 agreements currently in place (including the one with Canada, which has been signed but still needs final parliamentary approval). Some agreements cover goods alone, others both goods and services. Here are two examples:

  • 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.


EU-South Korea FTA:  http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:L:2011:127:FULL&from=EN

EU-Turkey Customs Union:  http://www.avrupa.info.tr/fileadmin/Content/Downloads/PDF/Custom_Union_des_ENG.pdf

EU-Turkey Additional Protocol: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A21970A1123(01)

2 February 2017


[1] WTO document WT/Let/868, 30 October 2012.
[2] WTO document G/MA/TAR/RS/357, 25 April 2014.
[3] WTO document S/C/M/111, 21 November 2012.


Updates: none so far
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: Screenshot from UK Parliament TV