If the UK exits the EU without a written (and WTO-compliant) free-trade agreement, it would fall back to MFN rules:

An exit from the EU, for example, would cause the UK to lose the preferential access to other markets covered by 36 trade agreements with 58 countries negotiated by the EU. As a result, to remain compliant with WTO rules the UK would have to impose higher “most favoured nation” tariffs on imports from those 58 countries, while they would have to levy their own surcharges on British exports, Mr Azevêdo [WTO's director-general] said.

A WTO analysis had calculated the cost of the additional tariffs on goods imports to British consumers at £9bn, while British merchandise exports would be subject to a further £5.5bn in tariffs at their destination. “The consumer in the UK will have to pay those duties. The UK is not in a position to decide ‘I’m not charging duties here’. That is impossible. That is illegal,” Mr Azevêdo said.

The only other option available to the UK would be removing all barriers for all WTO members, effectively turning its economy into a duty-free one like Singapore and lifting the protections politically sensitive domestic industries enjoy under the EU. “That is possible. But that is also very unlikely,” he said.

In view of the last paragraph, what I want to ask is: are there any prominent Brexiteers who are arguing for the UK to become entirely duty free (e.g. like Singapore) in order to get around potential tarrifs on UK goods?

N.B.: I see there are calls for the return of duty-free shopping in UK airpors etc. after Brexit, but that's not what I'm asking about there. (Generally there are quantity limits on such duty free things in airports). I'm talking about making the whole economy duty free.

1 Answer 1


Kevin Dowd has seriously argued for it (UFT = unilateral free trade) in his IEA booklet on post-Brexit trade strategy, although simultaneously he also argues for trade deals (for UK's exports) in this work of his:

This paper proposes a future UK trade policy based on free-trade principles. The guiding consideration should be to promote the UK national interest taken as the interest of UK consumers, with interests of producers secondary. Since it is in the UK’s interest to buy as cheaply as possible, tariffs and other barriers to imports should be abolished. Such a policy of Unilateral Free Trade (UFT) should then be complemented by efforts to seek Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with major trading partners, which would reduce barriers to UK exports. [...]

Several countries with UFT or near-UFT trade policies have also entered into FTAs:

  • Hong Kong has 4 FTAs with 7 trading partners.
  • Singapore has 20 FTAs with 31 trading partners.
  • New Zealand has 4 FTAs with 16 trading partners. [...]

    [M]ost producers would also benefit from zero tariffs: 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the UK economy is in non-protected sectors. Those who benefit from tariffs are a privileged and protected minority who are benefiting at everyone else’s expense. Policies that put the producer first are a modern form of the mercantilism that [Adam] Smith himself discredited.

I don't know if anyone more prominent than him shares his views on this.

More widely, a group called

Economists for Free Trade (EfFT) suggested that if the post-Brexit UK were to embrace unilateral free trade (UFT), the net effect of Brexit would be positive rather than negative.

They have a membership list which does include Dowd... and also

  • Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP Former Secretary of State Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs & former Secretary of State Northern Ireland

  • Rt Hon David Jones MP Member of the EU Scrutiny Committee, former Minister of State at DExEU, former Secretary of State for Wale

  • Jacob Rees-Mogg MP Member of Exiting the EU Select Committee, Director of Somerset Capital

As far as I know, from these guys, Jacob Rees-Mogg is probably the most recognizable figure Brexit-wise for his numerous media appearance on the matter, at least recently. And Rees-Moog has posted to Facebook about UFT at least linking to one IEA video on the matter. And it's not just that; he said in an interview

Mr Rees-Mogg, who is a firm favourite among the Tory grassroots, argued the Government should pursue a unilateral free trade policy, similar to countries such as Singapore and Australia. [...]

"Can I get back to why trade deals are a distraction, because I think this is important. The real benefit we get is from lifting tariffs on goods that come into this country and non-tariff barriers. That makes the UK more competitive, it makes goods for consumers cheaper," he said.

"Unilateral free trade has worked in every country that has tried it, historically. Trade deals are an add-on benefit and if you open up your markets you then go to people and say 'we've opened up our market, do you want to open up yours?' that then helps trade even further.

"But the benefits you get by reducing your input costs and the costs of consumption of voters across the country is very economically powerful."

David Jones was a Brexit minister until his sacking last year and was apparently well known for leading the Leave campaign in Wales. Unlike Rees-Mogg, I could not find a direct endorsement of UFT by Jones, but he did endorse a hard Brexit, only on WTO terms.

Needless to say the UFT proposals are controversial with other economists. But also in the interesting department, some fairly high-level Australian figures have pitched in, e.g. co-autoring/prefacing a Policy Exchange paper on UFT, including Geoff Raby and Alexander Downer (Australia's High Commissioner in London until this spring); the latter has also given interviews on the matter.

Finally (I hope) Warwick Lightfoot; although not a prominent politician in recent times, has supported UFT (is a member of EfFT) and also co-authored the aforementioned Policy Exchange paper with the (aforementioned) Australians. Lightfoot also featured in the Leave campaign's economic debates/events.

N.B. Economists for Free Trade was formerly known as Economists for Brexit, and supposedly

The EFT does not publicise its office address but the group shares the same telephone number as Leave Means Leave.

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