If Britain left with no deal, their rage would simply move from the institution in Brussels to the one in Genevaby Alex Dean / August 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
As the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit again rears its ugly head, attention has focussed in on the meaning of “WTO terms.” Brexiteers insist that Britain could cope—even thrive—if it fell back on them. On the phone last week Jacob Rees-Mogg assured me: “it is a well-established system” and “not something to be frightened of.”
Most commentary has focussed on the fact that Brexiteers are wrong, with Remainers explaining that no deal would in reality be disastrous.
They are right to be worried. But there is something else worth teasing out here, for the bizarre thing about Leavers agitating for no deal is not just that they underestimate the damage; there is something more unusual going on.
The fact is that having willed the outcome on us, Leavers would be the first to attack the WTO the moment we fell off the cliff. In fact, we would quickly find Brexiteers who wanted to leave it. They would move seamlessly from criticism of the institution in Brussels to criticism of the one in Geneva.
Consider first the criticisms that Leavers make of the EU. To hardline Brexiteers, as we know, EU membership is a grotesque infringement on national sovereignty: the customs union stops us from striking trade deals, while European law has primacy over our own. The institution is stuffed with unelected bureaucrats. These allegations will be familiar to anyone who follows British politics.
While not a view I share, this is perfectly coherent so far. The problem is that if you’re going to take issue with those things, you probably have to take issue with the WTO too. For the WTO compels its members to follow strict rules just as the EU does, and Britain could not deviate from them without incurring punishment.
A few examples make the point. In the event of “no deal” Brexiteers might, for instance, hope to drop tariffs on all goods from the European Union in order to keep trade flowing freely.
Yet they would quickly find that this is in contravention of the WTO’s “most favoured nation” clause, which demands equal treatment of trading partners with whom Britain does not have a special free trade relationship. Put simply, if we wanted to drop tariffs on EU goods we would have to do this for every country around the globe. That is obviously impossible: British farmers would overnight go out of business as cheap grain flooded in from the developing world.
Consider next the fraught problem of the Irish border. On this point Brexiteers have said that in the event of talks collapsing, Britain would simply refuse to enforce a hard partition. Traders would continue to travel back and forth just as they do today.
But this wouldn’t work either, and for similar reasons. The single market is legal under WTO rules only if the EU can demonstrate control over its perimeter. If the UK refused to erect a border the EU would therefore be compelled to do so, or else abandon the European project altogether. Again, the WTO would impinge on British decision-making.
Could Britain appeal these decisions? It could, but only by referring the case to the WTO’s appellate body. Nation states have only an indirect role in the selection of its members, meaning they are in a sense “unelected judges.” Needless to say this has always been anathema to British Eurosceptics.
Now, none of this is meant as criticism of the WTO. Rather, it is criticism of the Brexiteers. Hardline Eurosceptics, having previously held the WTO up as some kind of utopia, would surely turn their fire on it in the circumstances I have described. To see what happens when nationalists collide with the WTO we need only look to the US, where Donald Trump is seeking to block crucial appointments until he wins concessions. This is like peering into a crystal ball and seeing Britain’s future if the hardliners win.
What is the lesson here? That if you follow the Brexiteer logic, you soon find the rules-based order unravelling altogether. For the truth is that belief in unrestrained national sovereignty is a race to the bottom.
But in the 21st century, with the world more interconnected than ever before, supra-national institutions are essential. There is simply no other way to facilitate cooperation on such a massive scale. That is why Britain had to cede some sovereignty to the European Union, and why it is wrong to argue we could do as we pleased on the outside. Though don’t expect that to stop them.