June 19, 2019 3.17 pm This story is over 52 months old

Barry Turner: GATT 24 and other fairy tales

The sacred cow of the arch Brexiteer — free trade without commitment

It does not seem to matter how long this Brexit debacle goes on and how many times arguments are shown to be a range from wishful thinking to out and out fantasy, the politicians still crank them out like some obsolete spare part for a long-retired piece of machinery.

Boris Johnson, in his clearly unstoppable bid to be PM, has once again grasped at the hardline Brexiteer solution to post Brexit trade with the EU. We will fall back on the miraculous WTO rules, in particular the holy grail of them all GATT24 (as said on the BBC ‘Our Next PM’ debate on Tuesday night).

This rule, which ostensibly prevents countries from forming preferential free trade agreements, allows in certain circumstance countries with pre-existing free trade agreements to continue them without extending them to all other WTO member states.

This is the sacred cow of the arch Brexiteer — free trade without commitment. It is also a long since rejected solution to UK/EU trade post the 31st October this year. The EU will not start trade talks until after the withdrawal agreement is settled and the utterly dysfunctional WTO has shown little to no enthusiasm for such a scheme. If they do not agree it simply does not happen.

What Johnson and fellow Brexiteers refuse to recognise, let alone explain, is that the GATT 24 ‘solution’ is flawed in many respects. Principally the EU have to agree this. It is not a unilateral action by the UK government and we would presume that for them to do so, the UK would have to make some serious concessions. No need to consider what they might be for the moment though.

More importantly, all other WTO member states would have to agree. It is rather difficult to see why they would wish to support a proposal that clearly gave advantages to the UK that they would not share. The WTO is notorious for many things, one of which is the enormous length of time that negotiations on trade and tariffs take.

It is highly likely at the rate they move that such an agreement could be two fixed term parliaments in the future. It certainly would not be concluded by the 31st October, it would not even have commenced by then.

Optimistic Boris believes that we could get some form of interim deal effective from 31st October to err… well… whenever. He tells us that this would be ‘sort of’ automatic and that we would go from EU member to tariff free non-member seamlessly. This is even more fantastical than his claim that the NHS would get £350m a week post Brexit. Any free trade agreement would have to be negotiated not just with the EU but with the WTO too, and it will take an age.

So get used to it folks, a no deal Brexit means tariffs, tariffs both ways and bureaucratic red tape by the supertanker load. It means more expensive goods and more paperwork. The sooner our less than honest politicians actually develop the integrity to tell us all that, the better we can get on with preparing to leave the EU. It’s what the British people voted for after all.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.