What is the World Trade Organisation

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) can be seen as a number of different things. The first is a global organisation that deals with and monitors the rules of trade between nations, the second is a forum for governments across the world to negotiate trade agreements, and finally, it’s a place to settle trade disagreements. At the epicentre of the WTO lies the WTO agreements, which are negotiated and signed by the majority of the world’s trading nations and endorsed by their parliaments. The ultimate goal of the WTO is to ensure that trade between these nations flows as ‘smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.’

So, when was the WTO created? The World Trade Organisation was formed as a result of the 1986-94 negotiations known as the Uruguay Round negotiations and earlier negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which was established by a multilateral treaty of 23 countries in 1947 after the second World War. At the Uruguay Round negotiations, talks were aimed to extend the trading systems between nations into several new areas, most notably in services and intellectual property and to reform trade in the sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles. With the final act officially establishing the WTO regime being signed 15th April 1994, known as the Marrakesh Agreement.

Functions of the WTO

Despite the WTO being driven by its member states, there’s no way that it would be able to function without its Secretariat to coordinate and organise the activities which are to be carried out. The Secretariat is made up of over 600 members of staff, including experts in law, the economy, statistics and communications, all of whom assist WTO members on a daily basis to ensure negotiations are conducted smoothly and that rules of trade are correctly applied and enforced. Functions include:

  • Trade Negotiations – WTO agreements cover goods, services and intellectual property. These spell out the principles of liberalisation and the exceptions that are allowed. They consist of individual countries’ commitments to lower customs tariffs and other barriers of trade and to open and keep open services markets as well as setting the procedures for settling trade disputes. These agreements, however, are not static. They are renegotiated from time to time where new agreements are added to the package.
  • Implementation & Monitoring – WTO agreements require governments to make their trade policies clear by letting the WTO know about laws in force and measures adopted. A number of WTO councils and committees ensure that these requirements are strictly followed and that agreements are properly implemented. Each member of the WTO must undertake occasional scrutiny of their trade policies and processes, each review containing reports by the member state concerned and the WTO Secretariat.
  • Dispute Settlement – To ensure that trade between member states of the World Trade Organisation runs smoothly, it is vital that the procedure for resolving trade quarrels are enforced accordingly. Countries bring their disputes to the WTO if they believe their rights under the agreements are being violated. Independent experts are appointed to make judgements based on interpretations of agreements and individual countries’ agreements.
  • Building Trade Capacity – WTO agreements include special provisions for developing countries such as measures to increase their trading opportunities, longer time periods to implement agreements and support to enable them to build trade capacity. The World Trade Organisation organises hundreds of technical cooperation missions to developing countries every year. Aid for Trade aims to assist developing countries to develop the infrastructure and skills needed to build their trade.
  • Outreach – In order to enhance cooperation and increasing awareness of various WTO activities, the World Trade Organisation conducts regular dialogue and communication with non-governmental organisations, parliamentarians, the media and the general public.

All of these activities are performed for a number of reasons and to achieve several goals, including:

  • Non-discrimination between trading counties
  • Enabling trade to be more inclusive with lowered barriers
  • Creating predictability and transparency of trade to encourage investment
  • Increasing competitiveness
  • Providing an advantage for developing countries
  • Protecting the environment

For more information on the World Trade Organisation, who they are, what they do and what they stand for, be sure to visit the official WTO website below.

World Trade Organisation >

With Britain’s future trade relationships in question, and a no-deal Brexit looming on the horizon, the government has been preparing for post-Brexit agreements in an attempt to minimise the effects of Brexit.

New Zealand and Britain trade deal

On Monday, Britain’s Trade Minister Liz Truss said that striking a trade deal with New Zealand would be a priority, as officials are working to create continuity and support their non-EU trading partners. Truss, is on a three-nation tour, which includes New Zealand, Australia and Japan, a trip that hopes to pave the way for trade negotiations after Brexit. Ahead of her trip, Truss said: “We’re going to be leaving the European Union on October 31 with or without a deal and as part of that agenda, striking trade deals much more broadly than we have been doing is going to be vitally important. Striking a free trade deal with New Zealand is a very important priority for the UK. It’s one of the first trade deals we expect to strike.”

Official data shows that trade between New Zealand and Britain is at about NZ$6 billion (£3.1 billion), with New Zealand being Britain’s 43rd largest trading partner in 2017.

New Zealand’s Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker said that he wanted to find a way that will retain the existing advantages of New Zealand traders despite Brexit. Parker said that among the subjects discussed, were finding ways to cooperate such as Britain’s potential accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Businesses preparing for Brexit

If the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement, it will be treated as a non-EU country. For this reason, it is significant that businesses in the EU prepare for this eventuality, if they have not already done so. Businesses that sell to, buy from, or move through the UK, goods, supplies or services will be affected.

Customs duties and restrictions

Without a transitional period, the UK will revert to the WTO rules. This will mean “declarations will have to be lodged and customs authorities may require guarantees for potential or existing customs debts; Customs duties will apply to goods entering the EU from the United Kingdom, without preferences. Prohibitions or restrictions may also apply to some goods entering the EU from the United Kingdom, which means that import or export licences might be required.”  No longer valid will be UK import and export licences, UK authorisations for customs simplifications or procedures and Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) authorisations. There will be VAT charges for imports of goods entering the EU from the UK, while exports to the UK will be exempt from VAT. Additionally many rules regarding declaration and payment of VAT will change.

It won’t be easy to move goods to the UK, as that it will require an export declaration. Movement of excise goods from the United Kingdom to the EU will have to go through customs before a movement under Excise Movement and Control System(EMCS) can commence.

UK businesses

UK businesses then that export, import or move goods and services through the UK will need to prepare by completing relevant documents so that the transition to post-Brexit Britain is as smooth as possible.

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With a no-deal Brexit most likely happening in a couple of months, experts have warned about how unprepared many trading companies are.  Service industries, such as finance make up 79% of the British economy and account for 45% of UK exports. A no-deal Brexit means that these service providers would lose access to European markets and might have to comply to new rules and regulations. According to Bloomberg Economics, in a “more benign no-deal scenario growth will probably slow sharply, while a more disruptive outcome would make a recession highly likely.”

The prime minister Boris Johnson has pledged to leave the EU by 31 October with or without a deal. Without a withdrawal agreement in place, the UK will crash out of the EU, lose its access to the single market and revert to the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, having to deal with complicated restrictions and tariffs on exports. For many economists and business organisations, a no-deal Brexit will simply be disastrous for the economy.

Trading post-Brexit

While the UK has enjoyed tariff-free trade, after Brexit the UK will have to pay tariffs on UK goods and services. The change will hurt the UK economy, cause delays and increase costs and controls. Particularly, many financial companies are planning to move part of their operations to Europe to counteract the loss of access to their EU “passporting” rights and secure the smooth trading of goods and services with the rest of the world.

Similarly, UK prices will increase for EU imports such as food and cars. Cars will get a 10% tariff, clothes and linen a 12% tariff, while the UK will impose import quotas on beef, lamb, fish, poultry and swine.

The Bank of England has warned that Britain has one in three chance to plunge into a recession the beginning of the next year, as uncertainty over Brexit continues to affect the economy. In this climate, British businesses are stockpiling goods or plan to do so, as a hard Brexit will create problems at ports and hurt supply chains.  

Trading companies not prepared for Brexit

Carol Lynch, partner in Customs and International trade with the accountancy group BDO, said that only half of importers and exporters have signed up for the basic trading requirement. She said: "When we are looking at client reviews in terms of planning, the first question - particularly for vendors and suppliers - is have you got an EORI number. If you haven't, that's a very good indication that you haven't given any thought to future planning, deferred planning, tariffs, haulier preparations. The EORI is the very basic requirement.” For her, both imports and exports will be seriously affected by trade barriers. Lynch clarified: "Imports are especially important for consumers and manufacturers. Goods purchased from the UK and 80% of goods coming from Europe and outside of Europe come through the UK. It's critical and we'd be working with hauliers in making sure drivers are prepared and the right paper work has been handed in. Whatever chance you have of not being delayed is based on your preparations, that you know how to complete import declaration, that it's cleared and that you have that clearance slip in the cab so the driver knows what to do when they drive off the boat. There are a number of steps to ensure you can minimise the risk of delays which are, to a certain extent, inevitable.”

According to the Financial Times, France is already preparing for a no-deal Brexit by planning to trial an electronic customs system. The trial of the electronic customs system will commence in mid-September in Calais, ahead of a possible no-deal Brexit on 31 October. French minister in charge of customs Gérald Darmanin told French radio station RTL: “For a month, we’re going to pretend there is Brexit. For a lot of companies, we are going to have a sort of dress rehearsal so that we are ready at the end of October.”

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UK exports to Europe

Brexit has caused a lot of uncertainty for UK importers and exporters. The difficulties facing many British companies trading overseas have become an inseparable part of Brexit debates. For many, the issue lies with the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

In an article on the Guardian, Gareth Stace, director general of the trade association UK Steel, argues that leaving the EU has the potential to cause a great deal of damage to exports and weaken the sector more.

British Steel

In an attempt to present his views and the general steel industry’s position when it comes to its current issues and Brexit uncertainty, Stace admitted:

“There can be no doubt that the ongoing Brexit uncertainty has contributed significantly to British Steel’s problems. Unable to decipher what the UK/EU trading relationship will be in just five months’ time, planning has become fiendishly complicated for both UK exporters and their EU customers.” He also added that things have become more complicated with the EU’s recent measures seeking to prevent steel imports surging, a move that reflects a more general protectionist turn seen elsewhere.

As Stace wrote, “Post-Brexit, UK steel exports to Europe will be restricted by these measures, with a disorderly no-deal Brexit affecting them particularly badly.”

No deal Brexit is bad, but what about an orderly Brexit?

Stace elaborated on the question of whether a well-organised Brexit would improve things for steel exporters. For example, he questioned those who claim that with the UK being outside the EU, the government would support extensively the steel industry. As he argued, “the UK steel sector has no interest in operating under the support of state subsidies (we are vociferous critics of this practice in places such as China).”

He emphasised that the UK’s ability to provide state support was restricted nonetheless, due to its WTO membership, “which bans certain subsidies outright, and allows others to be counteracted by other WTO members with the imposition of ‘anti-subsidy duties’ – effectively closing off important export markets.” He also pointed out that the EU has already aligned itself in terms of state aid rules, so any agreement between the UK and EU would not be beneficially better. Similarly, other countries such as the US would also want to align themselves with the current provisions when they strike trade agreements with the UK, so the UK would not, in essence, enjoy any special treatment.

“Brexit would not provide greater trading opportunities”

The Brexiters’ mantra has been, since the beginning, based on the premise that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would come with the promise of striking limitless deals. Boris Johnson used this slogan in many occasions, but the “freedom to do our own trade deals,” as many Leavers have proclaimed, is not an easy fit. This is also the case for the steel industry. Stace clarified that Brexit would not come with the opportunity to strike many deals. As he said: “WTO tariffs on steel in developed countries are already zero, and the EU’s expanding list of FTAs is providing tariff-free access to many others. There is little advantage any new UK FTAs could offer.” Additionally, as UK-produced steel “qualifies as EU steel under complicated rules of origin within the EU’s FTAs,” this means that any European country can use it, whereas, after Brexit, UK steel “would be classified as UK not EU, reducing the attractiveness of it to EU manufacturers.”

In essence, Stace explained, “Brexit will not improve the situation for the steel sector but it has the potential to cause a great deal of damage.” For him, the biggest priority is to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible. And this is what most businesses are also demanding.