WTO dimensions of a UK ‘Brexit’ and agricultural trade

Following a first round of discussions on UK demands for a renegotiation of the terms of its membership of the EU at the European Council meeting last month, it now seems that the February meeting of the Council will agree on some package of measures and promises in response to UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s demands. It will then be up to Cameron to decide if this package is sufficient for him to campaign to stay in the EU in the referendum promised to take place before the end of 2017 and possibly later this year. Even if Cameron decides to campaign in favour of staying in, there is no guarantee that the UK voters will follow him. A possible Brexit, or UK exit from the EU, remains a distinct possibility.

If a Brexit were to occur, the UK would have to decide on what agricultural and agricultural trade policy it wished to pursue outside the EU. Even after Brexit, the UK would remain a member of the WTO. Its freedom to pursue an independent agricultural policy would still be constrained by its commitments under the WTO Agreements. But what would these commitments be, how would they be decided, and how binding would they be?

Defining the problem

When a country joins a customs union (CU), the acceding member adopts the CU tariff schedule. Where this results in a loss of market access for third countries, because custom union tariffs are higher than the bound tariffs the acceding country had scheduled in the WTO, third countries have a right to seek compensation (for example, countries such as Australia, Argentina, Brazil, China and Uruguay submitted claims for compensation when Croatia acceded to the EU in July 2013). All contingency trade measures (antidumping, anti-subsidy and safeguards) equally apply to the acceding members.

In the case of quantitative market access commitments, such as tariff rate quotas (TRQs), these are conventionally added to those of the CU. Similarly, commitments in the areas of domestic support and export subsidies are added to those of the CU. In practice, these changes in the CU’s commitments will be reported in its annual notifications to the WTO and will not be challenged by other WTO members, even if the implicit changes to the CU’s schedule of commitments are never formally approved.

Going in the opposite direction following the exit of a CU member is not so easy, particularly when that member was a member of the EU when the current WTO commitments were agreed following the Uruguay Round in 1994. There is no evident baseline to which these commitments can be rolled back. So how to establish what the UK’s agricultural policy WTO commitments would be following a possible Brexit?

In my view, this will require a two-stage process. The first stage will be a matter for negotiation between the UK and the EU27 (here used to mean the current EU28 member states less the UK, and not the EU prior to the accession of Croatia). As I noted in a previous post on Brexit, the procedures for leaving the EU were first set out in the Treaty on European Union, whose Article 50 provides, inter alia:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

One of the issues in negotiating the withdrawal agreement will be to decide how some of the EU28’s WTO commitments (for example, on import access) and concessions it has obtained (for export sales) should be apportioned between the UK and the EU27. Where the latter has obtained dedicated export rights (for example, through pre-allocated quantities in a bilateral tariff rate quota (TRQ)), changing this would require the consent of the importing country which seems an unlikely expectation. In these cases, the most likely outcome is that the TRQ would remain with the EU and the UK would lose its market access under that TRQ following Brexit. However, in the case of import TRQs there is a more realistic possibility that these might be divided between the UK and the EU27 if there were a will to do this. An allocation of the EU’s current domestic support commitments would also be required.

In such situations, there would then be a second stage within the WTO where other members would have to agree to this apportionment. This should not be taken as a foregone conclusion. If some WTO members felt that the agreed division of commitments discriminated against their market access entitlements or nullified some of their expected benefits under the WTO agreement, they might seek improvements or compensation in lieu.

WTO agricultural policy commitments

Let us conduct a thought experiment to see how these two stages might play out in the case of the WTO agricultural policy commitments.

With respect to tariff bindings, the UK would most likely inherit the EU’s bound tariffs which for most tariff lines are also the EU’s applied tariffs. This is not likely to be controversial in a WTO context. The UK could of course set its future applied MFN tariffs below this level but it could not exceed them.

There might be less agreement that the UK could inherit the ability to use the special safeguard on selected imports but the UK would have a strong case that it would be entitled to these provisions if it wished to make use of them.

As noted above, tariff rate quotas (TRQs) would be a more problematic issue. Some EU import TRQs are particularly important for the UK because a significant share of in-quota imports is destined for the UK market, such as butter from New Zealand. Whether the EU would want to share these quotas would be a matter for negotiation in the withdrawal negotiations. One could envisage that a more protectionist EU might be only too delighted to offload a larger than pro-rata share of its TRQs to the UK.

Getting agreement on any TRQ divvy up at the WTO would be more difficult. This is because different countries have different dependencies on the UK vs EU27 markets. No matter what allocation key is used, some third countries are bound to be aggrieved and feel that their exports (either to the UK or EU27 markets) would now face greater market access difficulties than before. If no agreement is forthcoming at the WTO, this could lead to a formal dispute over claims for compensation. To avoid this, or to be in a better position to defend such cases, the more objective the basis for the allocation and the more consistently it is applied across all TRQs, the better the chance of a successful defence.

Note my conclusion above that, in the case of bilateral export TRQs, these would probably stay with the EU and the UK would lose its existing market access rights. At this stage, I have not investigated how many such bilateral TRQs exist and how important they are for the UK. The UK could still compete, of course, for access under WTO multilateral TRQs as a WTO member outside the EU.

The UK will also want a share of the EU’s Bound Total AMS commitments which, together with its de minimis limits of product-related and non-product-related distorting support, represent the limit on the amount of trade-distorting support it can provide. At the moment the EU28 does not make full use of its Bound Total AMS, and its Current Total AMS is well below its bound ceiling. The apportionment of the AMS is unlikely to prove contentious as the UK is not likely to want to increase its use of trade-distorting support after Brexit. Some allocation key such as the relative shares in the value of gross agricultural output is likely to be used and would not meet with objection at the WTO.

The apportionment of export subsidy entitlements will not be an issue. Following the Nairobi Ministerial Council meeting of the WTO in December last year, the EU and all other developed country members agreed to eliminate remaining scheduled export subsidy entitlements with immediate effect (with some limited exceptions which will expire in 2020). As the negotiations leading to a withdrawal agreement are very unlikely to be completed by then (in my previous post I speculated that the date for a possible Brexit would be 1 January 2021), subsidies on agricultural exports will be prohibited by the time that this happens.

Bilateral trade agreements

The most complicated set of issues relates to the extent to which the UK will inherit the rights and obligations under the EU’s bilateral and regional trade agreements (RTAs). This is simply because of the number and detail of the provisions of these agreements, compared to a single WTO agreement (albeit with many individual chapters). I assume that in all cases the UK would intend to continue these agreements after Brexit to the extent that the other partners agree.

In all cases, because these are mixed agreements (meaning that they cover provisions that fall under member state responsibility under the Treaty of Lisbon) the UK is already in a legal relationship with the partner countries having separately ratified these agreements. Nonetheless, at a very minimum, a Brexit would imply textual changes to these agreements to recognise that the agreement is now with the UK directly and not through the EU. This would imply a process of ratification both by the UK and by each of the individual partner countries.

However, more than textual changes are likely to be required. Take again the issue of TRQs. which are widely used in bilateral trade agreements to address market access for sensitive agricultural products. Through its RTAs, the EU both gives and receives TRQ access to and from its trading partners. TRQ imports are important to the supply chains for various food processing industries in the UK. The notable example is sugar where the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery depends on access to duty-free sugar imports from ACP countries for its viability.

These sugar imports enter under Economic Partnership Agreements which are the EU’s RTAs with these countries (in this specific case, the UK could continue to import sugar from the least developed ACP countries under WTO rules but it could not offer duty-free access to other ACP countries without a comprehensive RTA with these countries). Of course, without separate UK RTAs with these countries, it could lower its applied MFN duty on sugar which would then apply to all countries including Brazil. Brazil would likely take the lion’s share of UK sugar imports under that scenario.

It is unlikely that the UK’s exit would require any alteration of the TRQ quantities in existing EU RTAs even if the agreements would now be only with EU27 rather than EU28 (in the same way as enlargement of the EU does not lead to any automatic change in these TRQ quantities in existing RTAs).

There are two conceivable options. One is that the EU27 and the third countries concerned voluntarily agree to renegotiate a division of the existing TRQs (both those of the partner country giving access to EU28 exports and those of the EU28 giving access to the partner country). This strikes me as highly implausible. On the EU side, it is very unlikely to want to go through the process of re-ratifying its 33 regional trade agreements to date. Approval of trade agreements now requires a time-intensive process including impact assessments and the involvement of both the Parliament and the Council, with the risk of unexpected pitfalls along the way.

The time pressure on the EU which is already engaged in negotiating a wide range of complex new agreements also means that it has no incentive to adjust its existing RTAs just to facilitate the UK which, after all, would be the one wanting to walk away from the EU. This option is also not attractive to the partners because, by definition, it reduces their market access. A TRQ dividing into binding limits in two markets is less valuable that the same TRQ with the flexibility to switch exports between two markets. I thus cannot see an incentive on either side to pursue this option.

The other option is for the UK to negotiate its own market access arrangements for these sensitive commodities as part of a full renegotiation of bilateral RTAs with these countries. It could decide to offer an additional TRQ or even abolish the sensitive status of the import and offer duty-free access. However, this implies simultaneous negotiations with the same 50 or so partners that are party to the EU’s over 30 RTAs.

It is important to underline that the UK cannot simply offer a bilateral quota to supplier countries to ensure continued access to supplies. Bilateral quotas are only WTO-compatible if agreed within the context of an RTA and, in turn, an RTA is only WTO-compatible if it covers ‘substantially all trade’ and if it is phased in ‘within a reasonable period of time’ (often taken to mean ten years). There is thus no alternative to concluding new comprehensive RTAs with these trading partners if the market access provisions (in both directions) are to continue.

To put it mildly, this will be a difficult balancing act to be achieved under considerable time pressure during the prescribed renegotiation period for withdrawal once the UK formally announced it wished to exit. All of these new agreements would have to be in place by the time of the formal end of the exit negotiations to avoid disruption of supply chains. While countries routinely use the possibility to provisionally apply the tariff concessions contained in an RTA before all the formal ratification steps are completed, there must be a strong possibility of disruption to particular UK supply chains which are dependent on access to duty-free supplies under existing EU RTAs in the wake of a possible Brexit.


Advocates of a UK withdrawal from the EU argue that the WTO provides a clear alternative to EU membership. This post asks the question what would its WTO commitments be with respect to agricultural policy in the event of a Brexit, and how would WTO rules affect its current trade flows?

The answers are not likely to be controversial in the case of tariff bindings or domestic support commitments, but its WTO commitments could create difficulties in the case of imports and exports under tariff rate quotas.

Also, WTO rules on non-discrimination imply that it may not be easy to maintain the market access granted under the EU’s RTAs without full-fledged negotiations to agree parallel agreements with the 50 or so countries that have signed free trade agreements with the EU. While signing new agreements outside the EU is certainly feasible, whether these can be in place before the end of the withdrawal period from the EU is a moot point.

There must be a high risk that Brexit would lead to disruption to supply chains (in the case of imports) and to export sales. Also, the time pressure on the UK to secure agreements will leave it in a relatively weak bargaining position vis-à-vis its trade partners implying that it may have to yield more concessions than might otherwise be the case in order to secure these agreements.

This post was written by Alan Matthews

Photo credit: Council of the European Union, reuse allowed.

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