The nature of WTO negotiations is changing, argued Professor Fiona Smith in her inaugural lecture at Leeds Law School last night. The agricultural trade specialist said that diplomatic negotiations were replacing regulation, although it was a messy process, but one that would mean a less central role for lawyers and technocrats. Diplomacy and regulation were in tension in some ways. That tension could be creative, but it could also be destructive.
Without regulation, the strongest and richest could get the best deal. The WTO had been far from ideal for least developed and developing countries, but what had gone before had been worse. For agriculture trade would effectively cease under a hard 'no deal' Brexit.
Professor Smith reminded us of the complexity of WTO rules, 30,000 pages of them and a 500 page handbook. Brexit was not something that WTO rules had been designed for, a country leaving a regional trade arrangement. There was more to trade than goods and services. The trade regime covered subsidies, quality agreements and the environment.
The question of whether the UK was a WTO member had in a sense been resolved, but its schedule of commitments had been absorbed in those of the European Community in 1973. The UK did not have the benefit of an accession treaty, She noted that the UK did now have its own representative in Geneva who was actively attending meetings, although what the UK's stance would be on various issues was unclear.
It was evident from her remarks that following WTO rules was not the simple matter that it was claimed to be. One might add that this is why countries around the world enhance them with regional trade agreements, not least the super regionals like the EU. WTO rules do not accommodate someone leaving a regional trade agreement.