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Can the UK Rejoin World Trade Organization? A Response from the WTO

Written by Quentin Patterson

The WTO respond here to questions from Quentin Patterson about the UK’s ability to rejoin WTO as an independent member. The WTO say that ‘Britain was, is and will remain a member of the WTO, but the process of independent integration into a series of WTO commitments will depend to a certain extent on the terms of its exit from the European Union’.

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If a country’s circumstances change suddenly, as might have been the case when Czechslovakia split in two, how quickly can it apply WTO rules?

The case of Czechoslovakia was a special one.  Czechoslovakia was an original member of the GATT, the WTO’s predecessor, in 1948. When the country split apart in 1993 the Czech Republic and Slovakia each applied for accession to the GATT and both became separate GATT members on the same day, 15 April 1993.  Since the two separate countries agreed to adhere to the same rules and kept the same level of commitments in terms of their goods schedule (i.e. the tariffs they charged on imports), their accession process as separate members was rather easy and quite straightforward. They applied via a letter to the Director-General and they were accepted. Slovakia and the Czech Republic joined as a customs union and shared a common external tariff averaging eight per cent; as EU members they now adhere to the EU’s Common External Tariffs. It bears mentioning that the accession process in the GATT days was far easier than it is today, when the WTO agreements on services and intellectual property, for example, did not exist and when acceding countries had to negotiate with fewer members than the WTO’s current 164-strong membership.

Is there some sort of emergency structure that can be used straight away, and be adjusted over time, and if so what does that entail?

Assuming that you are referring here to the case of Britain,  there are several points to raise. The first is that Britain was, is and will remain a member of the WTO. The second thing to keep in mind is that the process of Britain’s independent integration into a series of WTO commitments will depend to a certain extent on the terms of its exit from the European Union.

All Members of the WTO must have a schedule of commitments related to the terms of market access for their trading partners. In the case of Britain, the country does not have an independent schedule but as part of the European Union, it has abided by the terms of the common EU schedule. After Brexit the British  will need to have an independent schedule.

What they have formally proposed is to mirror the existing EU schedule with respect to market access for goods and services. This has been rather well received and it seems unlikely that there will be much difficulty on these points with other WTO members.

What may be more difficult is determining how Britain and the EU share existing tariff rate quotas (TRQs) for imports of agricultural products. Britain and the EU have proposed a system of sharing these quotas which have to date not been acceptable to several key WTO members so negotiations will be required here.

There will also be negotiations required for Britain to join the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA). Again the British are proposing the same terms as they shared as an EU Member state. It’s difficult to say how the negotiations on TRQs and GPA may progress. There is a great deal of good will towards Britain among WTO Members, but keep in mind that WTO delegates are trade negotiators. They may seek additional access beyond what is on offer. This is normal and there is no reason to believe that trade between Britain and non-EU WTO members will face any serious disruption. What happens with the 27 EU members, all of whom are WTO Members, will depend on the bilateral negotiations between London and Brussels.

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Quentin Patterson