Another day, another backtracking in the doom-laden predictions of what would happen as a result of a vote for Brexit. Back in May, World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief Roberto Azevedo told the Financial Times that Britain would not simply be allowed to ‘cut and paste’ its terms of membership with the WTO. We would, he suggested, effectively have to negotiate from scratch – a process which could take years, as it did when Liberia joined.
Today he has recanted, somewhat. 'The UK is a member of the WTO today, it will continue to be a member tomorrow,' he told Sky News. 'There will be no discontinuity in membership. They have to renegotiate but that doesn't mean they are not members. Trade will not stop, it will continue and members negotiate the legal basis under which that trade is going to happen. But it doesn't mean that we'll have a vacuum or a disruption.'
This all rather begs the question: so why was it all going to be so much of a problem back in May? Then, Mr Azevedo was effectively campaigning. He was just tagging along with all the other heads of NGOs in their attempt to persuade us to vote to remain in the EU. The message they all seemed to want to give us is that we would be punished if we dared to leave the EU. Referendum over, the WTO in common with the IMF, OECD, World Bank and all the others have realised that adopting a punitive attitude wouldn’t just hurt Britain; it would hurt the whole world. The WTO’s remit is to facilitate world trade and if it is going to fulfil that it is going to have to co-operate.
Forget the talk about being ‘back of the queue’ and so on. You don’t get pushed to the back when you are the world’s fifth biggest economy. Not that there needs to be a queue anyway. Surely, Barack Obama has enough officials at his disposal to conduct several trade negotiations simultaneously. With the collapse of the US-EU trade deal, and of that between Canada and the EU, Obama’s successor may find it pays to drop the threatening language and deal with us ahead of the EU, which has shown itself pretty useless at doing trade deals with other large economies. I wouldn’t mind betting that Britain will have trade deals in place with the US, Canada, China and Japan long before the EU does so.