It is central to the argument of the campaign to leave the EU, that Britain needs "trade agreements" with the non-EU world. (Forget for one moment that we do enjoy such agreements with about 70 countries by virtue of our membership of the EU)

Why is it important to Brexiters to have trade agreements with the Far East, Africa, Australasia and the Americas? Indeed any suggestion we should be in the EU Customs Union draws howls of protest from Brexiters. They say it would mean we could not have independent trade agreements elsewhere.

However Brexiters are perfectly happy to trade with Europe, by far our largest trading partner on WTO terms. So if WTO terms are ok for trade with the EU, why not with China, America, India etc?

This is a central paradox in the Brexit argument, which so far no Brexiter has been able to explain to me. I heard David Gauke, the Justice Secretary, also mention his own failure to get an answer to the question.

I'm not looking to have an argument here, simply an explanation.

  • 1
    Who says they want to trade mostly with the EU? Maybe they want to trade a lot with all the other countries? As it stands, I think it's mostly speculation, and as such I think it's very hard to answer. Different Brexiteers may have different views on this just like different liberals may have different views on trade.
    – JJJ
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 23:43
  • @JJJ There is nothing preventing Britain trading with the non-EU world at the moment. Germany is subject to the same Customs Union rules and sells six times as much as Britain in dollar value outside the EU every year. France, Italy and the Netherlands all sell more than the UK. In fact our non-EU trade is about the same as that of Belgium - a country one-sixth our size. It is not membership of the Customs Union which hampers Britain's export trade, it is the lack of attractive products to sell.
    – WS2
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 7:03
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    Is that really central? My impression has been that the main argument is that many Britons (and people in other EU countries) detest the multitude of rules imposed on them by Brussels bureaucrats. I would guess that most Brexit voters don't really care about trade agreements.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 18:41
  • I'm not sure I agree. Even if that were a central point in brexiter policy the diagram shown by Barnier still gives the possibility for a Canada style deal, which is incomparably better than WTO terms. I feel the no deal option to be a political argument, not an a pragmatic one. Moreover I think the argument was that trade with EU could be replaced by trade deals with other markets with a positive balance. This is seen as unlikely thus the lack of consensus among Tories.
    – armatita
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 11:43

3 Answers 3


Brexiteers are not a monolithic block and not uniquely devoid of paradoxes. However, the principle would be:

We want a trade deal with Europe, USA, Japan etc that does not require us being part of a supranational political organisation. If we cannot get such a deal that meets the interests of the UK, we are happy to trade on WTO terms with Europe, USA, Japan etc.

Very few brexiteers say that WTO terms are their preference for dealings with the EU. They want a trade deal to include zero tariffs on a wide range of goods. However, if such a deal is not available then (and only then) they would be willing to accept the fallback position of the WTO rules.

Similarly, they do not want WTO rules for trade with (say) Japan, and want to be able to negotiate a deal with Japan that is advantageous to the UK. It is the belief that the UK negotiating only for itself can get a more advantageous deal than the EU can, negotiating for the benefit of all the countries in the bloc.

So the claim has never been that WTO is both better and worse. Instead it is the claim that the costs of EU membership (money, pooling/loss of sovereignty, inability to make bespoke trade deals, loss of control of immigration) do not justify the benefits (EU grants, free trade in Europe, influence on very large economic bloc, access to EU trade deals, freedom of movement for UK citizens across Europe)

  • 1
    There is nothing much here with which one can disagree, but it doesn't seem to me to explain why, for example the hard Brexiters are so opposed to the UK remaining in the Customs Union. Could we possibly sign trade deals with elsewhere e.g. Japan, that gave us such advantage over what the EU trade deal with that country gives us, that it compensated for the loss of a trade agreement with the EU and the other 69 countries with which it has dealings?
    – WS2
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 14:45
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    I don't know the answer to that question. The assumption of many brexiteers is "yes, we can negotiate such deals"
    – James K
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 14:52
  • @DenisdeBernardy Yes. To begin with the emphasis was on trade and how much better we could do outside the EU. But as that argument has been worn down, some Brexiters quite accept that it is spurious. But they have switched to the idea of Britain recovering its "sovereignty" over its laws etc - sovereignty which we have managed perfectly well without for the last 40 years mind. The third major strand was of course about "free movement". I'm not too sure why, but that seems to have gone far quieter. Immigration figures have remained virtually what they were, but with more non-EU and fewer EU.
    – WS2
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 21:30
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    @Moo The Customs Union means that instead of 27 countries individually having to manage their trade relations, Brussels does it for all of them. The saving in cost is enormous, and without it Britain would certainly not have been able to reduce government expenditure to the extent it has over the last forty years. Some Conservative think it was Margaret Thatcher who reduced the size of the British state. The secret is that it was the EU bureaucracy, so often maligned. But Brexit will have its compensations. There should be a flood of graduate openings in Whitehall again. Pity the taxpayer!
    – WS2
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 6:55
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    Don't they realise that WTO is a "supranational political organisation"? And one on which they have completely no influence?
    – M i ech
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 7:43

I voted to leave, and to answer your question the way I see it:

It's not that Brexit voters don't want to trade with Europe, or have a trade agreement with them. Of course they do - the EU is the UK's largest trading partner, so why wouldn't we want a trade agreement? However, Brexit is really a rejection of the terms of the trade deal that is being insisted on by the EU. Brexiteers are generally happy to trade, but they reject this apparent philosphy of the EU that trade must be accompanied by open borders and ever closer political integration. As far as my own position: trade - yes please; political integration - no thanks!

  • You have not mentioned where you stand on the Customs Union and the Single Market. As one old enough to have been earning his living whilst our economy was a basket case in the 60s and early 70s, my guess is that both of these have contributed to our much improved economic performance over the last 45 years. If you are agreeable to the CU and SM, my guess is that your position is not far removed from Ken Clarke's. He advocates staying in the economic arrangements but out of the political. Some argue it commits us to something over which we lose all control - a dependent colony of the EU.
    – WS2
    Commented May 26, 2019 at 15:36
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    This is incorrect. I have already written this in the OP but I'll repeat here: Barnier mapped the options in a diagram. There is clearly a Canada style option in there, which was refused by the UK. The idea that the EU refused to offer the UK the same that offered others is at best, negligent, and at worst deliberate misinformation. This is public information reported by several international agencies, including from the UK (as can be seen in the link).
    – armatita
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 11:54
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    @Time4Tea Whilst the parties supporting no-deal got 31.6% of the vote, those supporting a "People's Vote" got 40.3%. So I'm not clear on how Brexit won? All I will say is that I cannot imagine who in their right mind would want to be Prime Minister at the moment!
    – WS2
    Commented May 27, 2019 at 12:06
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    @Time4Tea In that case you should also be aware that already in 1957, in the Treaty of Rome (creation of the EEC, and almost two decades prior to UK accession), there were already provisions for free mobility among other integrationist policies (Article 48, for example). So the last paragraph is a bit off the mark. The same for the first. When the UK first entered the EEC it already knew of its project. None of it was imposed (all members have veto power, decisions by consensus). A gun to the head argument is void.
    – armatita
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 12:43
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    @armatita I have changed 'imposed' to 'insisted on' in my answer. Hopefully that will seem fair, as the EU is effectively 'insisting on' certain terms being attached to a free trade deal, which the Brexit side is rejecting.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 21:34

I have no skin in this game, so I am cannot speak for Brexiters. But I can understand the argument. I'll state it, but don't take it to mean that I am endorsing it.

WTO rules are more macro-scale. For example, they rarely get into forcing rules of trade of a particular product.

If you consider the whole situation on a smaller scale, 2 corporations making a deal would not want a government telling them that they can trade some specific goods and services, but not the others. A government would, of course, be tempted to weigh in on anything that it may be allowed to weigh in on. But the more micro-scale control it has, the less of that control is left in the hands of the owners.

This is the difference. I am not saying one is better than the other. There will be some winners and some losers in both scenarios. Ultimately, it is the political process that will decide on which future the country prefers.

  • Are you kidding? The UK's WTO schedule for goods is some 715 pages long. The one for services some extra 94 pages. gov.uk/government/publications/… Commented May 29, 2019 at 23:42
  • @Fizz at 20-30 line items per page, that's 15000 - 20000 items. Is that for the entire UK? If it is, it seems more like an exception than the rule. For perspective, Sears catalog had 322 pages in 1894!
    – grovkin
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 23:55
  • @Fizz as another example, there is 12,000,000 items sold by Amazon. That's not 12M sales, that's 12M items that they sell. Surely, you must agree that even the generous estimate of 25,000 items in UK's WTO schedule is a very small fraction of the marketplace.
    – grovkin
    Commented May 30, 2019 at 16:35

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