UK will back WTO reform after Brexit, trade minister says

GENEVA (Reuters) - Britain will support U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls to reform the World Trade Organization (WTO) when it gets an individual seat at the trade forum after Brexit, but will fight protectionism, the country’s trade minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss outside Downing Street in London, Britain August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Liz Truss’s comments came on a visit to the WTO’s Geneva headquarters, where she was seeking to ease fears of trade disruptions before a potential “no-deal” Brexit, in which Britain would leave the EU without an agreed withdrawal process.

Within the organization, Britain has been represented by the European Union until now. It will get its own seat if it quits the EU as planned in what Truss called a “golden opportunity to determine our own trade policy”.

“... I can assure you we will be unapologetic in fighting the forces of protectionism, in favor of genuinely free trade,” Truss said in a speech to the International Chamber of Commerce in Geneva. She attended a meeting with WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo later on Wednesday in which they discussed preparations for Brexit within the WTO.

Britain revised a tariff regime on Tuesday in the event of a no-deal Brexit to make 88% of imports eligible for tariff-free access. Much uncertainty remains about the impact of Brexit on trade, however.

Large agricultural players have objected to the way in which the UK and the EU have divided up existing quotas, such as for lamb. Trade can continue but without any legal framework.

“Lots of people I know who are trade lawyers have been contacted by the British government in the past few weeks and headhunted to assist with negotiations,” said a trade lawyer in Geneva who asked not to be named. “They are scrambling”.

Britain’s expanded role in the WTO comes amid criticism from Washington, which has brought its seven-member Appellate Body - effectively the supreme court of trade - to the brink of collapse by blocking the appointment of new judges. After December, the court will have only one judge.

“President Trump has said he wants the WTO to modernize, and I agree,” Truss said in the speech. However, she pledged support for a diplomatic process meant to resolve the crisis at the court.

“We must work together to resolve the Appellate Body impasse,” she said. She also urged action on liberalizing digital trade and on fish subsidies negotiations.

Additional reporting by Phil Blenkinsop; Editing by Larry King and Mark Potter