The latest slogan developed by the Leave side is admittedly catchy. It implies that the UK can immediately revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and that our economy will not suffer unduly for it. Neither of these are true. It is important to remember that the WTO rules so beloved of Brexiters only apply to trade in goods. The UK's economy is about 80% services (and about 40% of our exports to the EU are services): WTO rules do nothing for trade in services because WTO rules are concerned almost exclusively with tariffs and quotas, but the problems of trading services internationally arise from non-tariff barriers.

One viral Facebook post (original author unknown) summarises the problems nicely:

Right, let's tackle this WTO thing, because it's pissing me off.

1/ If we end up solely on WTO rules, then we need a hard border in Ireland. That risks peace, stability, and the Union. Plus we don't have any time to build the infrastructure required. Like, nowhere NEAR enough time. And there aren't any "alternative arrangements", I promise. They don't exist. There isn't a single border in the world that has any. And that means a hard border.

2/ If we rely on WTO rules for trade, then we need to apply tariffs to imports. And expect that other countries will apply tariffs to our exports. That makes things more expensive for us to buy, and makes our businesses less able to compete. Not really sure how this is a win.

3/ If we decide we're not going to apply tariffs to imports at all, then we lose all leverage for negotiating future trade deals. What on earth would we offer them?? We've already given them free access to our market.

4/ If we decide we're not going to apply tariffs to imports at all, then we destroy our own producers - why would you carry on trying to run a farm produce business when the market is flooded with much cheaper products from abroad?

5/ If we decide to only reduce tariffs on products from the EU, then the Most Favoured Nation clause (WTO rules) kicks in - this says that you can't offer more favourable terms to one bloc, and not everyone else. So - no tariffs from the EU, means no tariffs from anyone. See points 3 and 4.

6/ If you were looking forward to getting your bendy bananas back, then tough s**t; this rule didn't come from the EU (no matter what Boris told you), it came from the WTO - specifically, the Codex Alimentarius. So, no change there. Except now bananas are extortionately expensive, because, well, tariffs.

7/ If you're relying on the idea that there's an obscure WTO rule that says we can just carry on trading with the EU on the same terms we have now for 10 years, then tough shit again - this isn't correct. The "rule" is Article XXIV of the GATT, and is specifically an allowance for deviating from the MFN (see 5) because you and another bloc are working towards implementing your bilateral trade deal. It requires an end point - a fully thrashed out trade agreement. It is specifically NOT a clause that comes into play when you decide to drop out of a trading arrangement.

8/ If one of the benefits of "going WTO" is that we can make our own rules, then I can understand that. We could decide, unilaterally, that it's too expensive for us to produce electronics with an earthing wire, so we're not going to insist on that anymore. Cool. But then we can't sell our products to our closest trading neighbours. We want to sell stuff to the EU, we need to follow their rules. Except now we don't get a say in what they are.

9/ Having a "world trade deal" sounds quite attractive - quite romantic. The idea of Britain going out on her own, bravely forging links with faraway lands - it's quite appealing. Except trade doesn't work like that. There's a gravity towards your closest neighbours - proximity is important. I'm more likely to sell something to France than I am to Australia - I can get it there quicker, for example, and for a much lower cost. There is no nation on earth - none - that have prioritised trading with distant countries instead of those geographically closest. We're about to be the first - which will involve a pretty brutal lesson in the realities of logistics.

10/ If we go WTO, then we need to check goods coming into our internal market - including those from the EU. We don't have the infrastructure to do this. Nor do we have the staff. Nor the time. Plus - and this is deeply ironic - once we leave the EU, the pool of people from which we can recruit to do this essential work becomes much, much smaller. Do we have enough vets to perform the necessary checks on livestock coming into the country, for example? No. Where do we normally recruit them from? The EU. Ah, shit.

11/ A No Deal exit was never on the cards during the campaign. It is simply all that is left, once logic and reality strip away all the lies that we were told about Brexit. No, German car manufacturers haven't been knocking on Merkel's door demanding a trade deal with the UK. No, the EU doesn't need us more than we need them. No, we don't hold all the cards. None of that was true. It was never going to be true. But rather than facing up to reality, the rhetoric has just become more and more extreme. If you're dealt a bad hand in a game of poker - if the river turns against you - you don't HAVE to go all in. There are other options. You don't need to claim that was what you intended to do all along.

All of this - all of the above. That's what Donald Tusk was talking about. People who either ignored the above, or didn't even bother to find out about it - but sold us Brexit anyway. The people who - even now - print banners that say "LET'S GO WTO!" as if it's the easiest thing in the world, and without consequence.

An ITV News report and video explaining the same basic problems is available. See also the "Going Global?" article on this website which discusses some of the problems of trading with the rest of the world and why it isn't as simple as the Brexiters make out. Also highly recommended is a blog piece by Anneli Howard, a barrister whose specialities include the WTO and international trade laws, on Gina Miller's End the Chaos site. To quote from that piece:

The empty mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” and nostalgic hopes that Britain is great, coped during the war and can recover its previous glory, have blinkered a generation that has only known peace to reality. It also ignores the way that our country, technology, globalisation and intense competition have changed in the last 50 years or so.


Some say that we can make up for [loss of frictionless access to the EU market] with trade from the Commonwealth countries and other distant countries in Asia and South America. Never mind the environmental damage and transport costs, what do we make in our service economy to sell to them?

At prices cheaper than China and India?

Without removing our minimum wage and employment standards?

And what else can we buy that we don’t already buy from them?

See also the Twitter feed of former Australian WTO negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski and his website which draw on his experience of actually negotiating trade deals at the WTO.

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