27 countries raise concerns at WTO over Britain's post-Brexit trade plans

Geneva, Switzerland Published: Oct 26, 2018, 09.21 PM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

Twenty-seven countries have raised concerns about Britain's future trading terms at the World Trade Organisation, trade sources in Geneva told AFP on Friday, in a move that could delay post-Brexit free trade deals.

The WTO in Geneva -- which has 164 countries as members -- is where countries negotiate the rules of international trade and settle disputes.

Although Britain is a member outright, for decades the EU has represented the UK at the WTO.

But Brexit means the UK has to separate its trade rules from the EU if it wants to act with more independence.

As March approaches -- Britain's Brexit leave date -- the UK has pushed to essentially replicate the WTO rules it currently follows as an EU member, with some technical changes.

But trade sources have told AFP that 27 countries have "raised concerns" about the plans, particularly regarding agriculture tariffs and quotas, as well as other issues. 

The move has been described as a "welcome to reality" moment for the UK, by analysts.

"All these countries, they are all saying we would like something, we want a bigger share of the pie," David Henig, Director of the UK Trade Policy Project, told AFP.

"While the UK is in these (WTO) negotiations, that can potentially delay bilateral deals with other countries," he said.

A delay to new free trade deals post-Brexit -- touted as a key benefit of leaving the EU by Brexit supporters -- could have economic consequences for the UK.

But it is still unclear whether Britain's proposed Brexit deal will even leave the UK with much power to negotiate free trade deals.

Until a Brexit deal is completed, it is impossible to know what terms of trade will be negotiated at the WTO.

Many of the concerns raised by other countries at the WTO could even fall away if the UK stays part of the EU's custom's union for example, trade sources said.

- National interests -
The WTO said the situation is without precedent but that while discussions take place, trade will continue as normal.

"The type of conversation that will take place very much depends on the outcome of the UK-EU bilateral negotiation," the WTO said in a statement.

A separate issue is whether British businesses will continue to get equal access to bid for government contracts in other WTO countries, known as government procurement agreements. 

"The other countries might decide to keep treating British businesses the same way, but they don’t have to," warned Doctor Lorand Bartels, a teacher of WTO law at the University of Cambridge.

If the UK does not reach a deal with other WTO countries then, "British businesses would not be protected when bidding for government contracts," Dr Bartels said.

12 percent of GDP is the amount spent on average in OECD countries on public procurement, according to the organisation.

According to market analysis site MLex, Russia is one of the countries to have objected to the British proposals, saying they do not meet obligations "under several basic WTO provisions”.

Other countries have made it clear that they think the plans will put them at a disadvantage, the site said.

The WTO played down the significance, saying countries had simply reserved their right "to sit down and discuss with the British" negotiations in the coming months.

The developments are a reminder of the huge complexities Britain faces to finalise deals while countries promote their own national interests.

"There is a lot of negotiating to go ahead," Henig said.

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