Some people have proposed that after Brexit, the UK could adopt the "Singapore model" with unilateral free trade, and have no tariffs or non-tariff trade barriers from anywhere. For example, see The Telegraph, The Guardian, or this Conservative Home article. From the UK perspective, this would resolve the Irish border problem, as the UK Customs would not perform checks at the Irish Border, and it would be compatible with WTO Most Favoured Nation principles, as the UK would not perform checks from anywhere else, either (of course, the EU would still check its external customs border, including in Ireland).

Does this model imply that the UK could no longer have any product standards? Or could the UK under WTO rules still set standards on what can be legally sold in the UK, even when there are no limitations on what can be legally imported?

  • "Or could the UK under WTO rules still set standards on what can be legally sold in the UK, even when there are no limitations on what can be legally imported?" Consider guns, drugs etc.
    – user19831
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 12:10
  • @Orangesandlemons Well, maybe. Nobody said that the proposal to not do any customs checks ever isn't a radical proposal.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 13:05
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    Singapore still has Customs. Almost all goods are duty free, but there are sin taxes on a few (export.gov/article?id=Singapore-Import-Tariffs). Illegal goods are illegal. customs.gov.sg Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 13:11
  • 2
    @PaulJohnson True. So what some are describing as the "Singapore model" is actually even more radical than Singapore.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 13:18

2 Answers 2


The UK could still have standards, but (from a CATO paper on regulatory protectionism)

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), one of the WTO’s core treaties drafted in 1947, does not stop at border measures but also requires national treatment of imports; that is, governments’ domestic laws must treat imports the same as goods produced at home.

This kind of thing can get tricky, since clever regulatory capture subtly takes ideas that seem to be defending consumers and promote them to the extent that their main effect is squashing competition. For example:

The U.S. Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (popularly known as the “2008 farm bill”) included provisions requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on all imported beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and goat meat and certain perishable commodities sold in retail outlets in the United States...

A WTO panel found, and the Appellate Body confirmed, that mandatory COOL rules violate Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement by treating imported livestock and meat from Canada and Mexico (the two complainants in the case) less favorably than similar domestically produced products. According to the Appellate Body report, the burden of maintaining detailed records, which caused harm to foreign livestock producers by increasing their costs, was not justified by the goal of informing consumers, because the information ultimately given to consumers was much less specific than what the processors were required to keep track of. This disparity sufficiently revealed the protectionist nature of the law.

Another example comes from anti-smoking regulation

In 2009 the Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act banned the sale of all flavored cigarettes in the United States, except menthols. Why the exception for menthols? It’s not because menthol cigarettes have fewer negative effects than other flavored cigarettes or because menthol cigarettes are less favored by new, underaged smokers than clove cigarettes. No, there are two reasons menthols were excluded. One, because they are popular—25 percent of all cigarettes smoked in the United States are menthols—especially among African-Americans (80 percent of black smokers choose menthols). And two, because a ban on flavored nonmenthol cigarettes did not affect U.S. cigarette producers, only their foreign competition. The result was a ban on less popular flavored cigarettes from Indonesia but not on the flavored cigarettes made in the United States.

The WTO found this law also to be inconsistent with U.S. obligations under the TBT Agreement. Here, the Appellate Body considered that prevention of youth smoking was a legitimate goal. They even accepted that treating cloves less favorably than menthols would be acceptable if that different treatment was based on a “legitimate regulatory distinction.” But they also recognized that exempting menthols did not further the stated goal of the regulation, because there was no evidence that young people would not choose to smoke menthols instead of cloves.

These examples come from the United States and the notably pro-trade CATO institute, but they illuminate how the WTO looks at product standards and regulations.

So under WTO rules, the UK can still have product standards. These product standards cannot, however, be tariffs in disguise. They cannot impose a regulatory burden on foreign importers and not domestic ones without a compelling reason.

  • 3
    The meat example seems like dumb policymaking. Since domestic producers like to slap "Made in/produce of [this country]" labels on things anyway, it would hardly have been an imposition on domestic producers to just require all meat to have country-of-origin labelling, and presumably everyone, including the WTO, would have been happy. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:02
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    Sounds like we'd replace complaints about the foreign judges at the European Court of Justice with complaints about the foreign bureacrats at the WTO. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 16:56

If there are no barriers then there can be no standards imposed on goods coming in to the country, as checking to see if goods meet those standards is itself a barrier that creates delays and costs for importers. A so-called "non tariff barrier" because it's not a direct financial penalty but nevertheless hinders free trade.

In fact Singapore does have border controls and trade barriers. For example, most types of chewing gum are banned and cannot be imported. Checks at ports and borders prevent it entering the country.

  • "as checking to see if goods meet those standards is itself a barrier that creates delays and costs for importers. " So? Checking for standards effects domestic producers as well.
    – user19831
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:02
  • 1
    @Orangesandlemons actually the situation is usually that domestic manufacturers self-certify. The may have samples certified, e.g. a car passes type approval but then they can churn out millions of them without needing to have most inspected. On the other hand when they export that car every shipment may be subject to a check, with each car needing paperwork and evidence that it meets the destination country standards that may be different to the domestic ones. That's why the EU has a customs union and common rules regulating products made inside it.
    – user
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:13
  • indeed, if every shipment is subject to new certification checks you'd be correct, but you could fairly easily have the same situation for importers of factory to standards etc.
    – user19831
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:18
  • @Orangesandlemons typo? That sentence doesn't make sense.
    – user
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 7:53
  • more I've been far to terse; sorry about that. end was meant to say that the importers would have to have the factory certified the same way as domestic factories and so on
    – user19831
    Commented Oct 17, 2018 at 8:25

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