The start of 2019 marks nearly two-and-a-half years since the British public voted, in record numbers, to exit the European Union. It is difficult to convey the overwhelming sense of excitement and optimism one felt as a British libertarian waking up to that result on June 24th 2016, and again when Article 50 was triggered, beginning the two-year countdown to the date Britain would actually leave the EU, scheduled to be 29th March 2019.
More difficult, however, would have been to convey how far afield the actual Brexit process would stray from the hopes and expectations of the people who voted to leave. At the time of this article’s writing, Theresa May’s disastrous Brexit deal will today be put to a vote in the House of Commons. The inexcusable problems with that deal are far too numerous to itemize in a single article. These range from major betrayals – such as the fact that the UK would remain bound by current and future EU laws, would remain bound to the EU’s foreign policy, and would remain within the EU customs union indefinitely if a UK-EU trade deal is not agreed by the end of 2020 – to more under-reported stipulations, such as the bizarre clause which would make it impossible to prosecute EU employees based in the UK who are, or who are in future deemed to be, criminals, or the clause which would require the UK government to spend taxpayers’ money on propaganda in support of the deal itself.
The silver lining is that Parliament is widely expected to reject Mrs May’s universally maligned deal. However, with the March deadline looming and little time to negotiate a new deal, it seems increasingly likely that a no-deal Brexit is the only available alternative to the delay/reversal which the media has been frantically pushing for.
Although a no-deal Brexit does seem to be the least worst of the likely eventualities, Brexiteers have increasingly been resorting to a worrying line of argument in pursuit of that goal: “If we leave the EU with no deal it’s nothing to worry about, we’ll just trade with them on WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms.”
From a purely rhetorical perspective, I can see the appeal of this argument. The prospect of a no-deal, ‘hard’ Brexit sounds to the average voter like a leap into chaos, and it’s always valuable to remind people that individuals are in fact capable of trading with each other without the supervision of their political masters.
However, this argument (especially if made by libertarians) risks giving the impression that the WTO is some sort of benign manifestation of free trade principles. Sadly, the truth is quite the opposite.
Far from representing a restraint on intervention in trade by national governments, countries trading under WTO rules are actually provided with a wide range of officially approved tariffs and quotas. In many cases these are even more punitive than the protectionist measures on which the EU is based. For example, under WTO terms, UK-EU trade in dairy products would be taxed at over 35%, sugars and confectionary at nearly 24%, beverages and tobacco at 19.6%, animal products at 15.7%, and so forth.
For many libertarians, the preferability of absolute free trade is a fact so obvious as to go without saying. However, by advocating a ‘WTO terms Brexit’ for rhetorical reasons, libertarians risk not only muddying the public understanding of our own views, but also of associating ourselves with a system of interventionism and exploitation incompatible with the moral values on which our views are based.