How hard is a Hard Brexit?


The UK government has triggered Article 50, which starts a two-year process of negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union. One of the most important issues to be decided is the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. 

Trade agreements

Trading relationships between different countries are defined by ‘trade agreements’.  The UK currently has three trade agreements in place:

  • Single Market
  • Customs Union
  • World Trade Organisation (WTO)

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has ruled out the possibility of the UK remaining in the Single Market post Brexit. The Single Market allows for the free movement of goods, services, people and capital within the EU. So it seems likely that businesses will become subject to greater administrative and regulatory barriers when trading in goods and services. For example, goods exported from the UK to the EU are likely to be subject to Customs checks at the EU border.


It remains to be seen whether the UK’s membership of the Customs Union will continue. The Customs Union allows goods to be moved within all EU Member States plus a few other countries without payment of Customs duties (known as ‘tariffs’). If the UK leaves the Customs Union, there will be two options: 

Negotiating a new deal

The first option will be to negotiate a new trade agreement with the EU. The negotiations would be complex, and the prospect of securing a trade agreement with the EU before Brexit in early 2019, seems remote. For example, the trade agreement between the EU and Canada (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or ‘CETA’) took seven years to be agreed. The US and the EU have failed to reach agreement concerning the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TIIP), after three years of negotiation. So the precedents are stacked against a quick deal being done between the UK and the remaining 27 EU Member States.

WTO rules

The alternative is for the UK to rely on its membership of the WTO until new trade agreements can be put in place. The UK and most other major trading nations are members of the WTO, including all EU Member States - although they act as a single WTO member.

The purpose of the WTO, as with any trade agreement, is to facilitate trade between members and to eliminate trade discrimination. The WTO sets the maximum rate of Customs duty that members can apply to importations of each classification of goods. Members are free to apply lower rates of duty if they wish, but they must offer the lower rates to all members. 

The UK could apply WTO rules and reduce the WTO rates of Customs duty to mirror those currently applied by the EU. This would mean that, as far as the UK’s trade with non-EU countries is concerned, there would be no change to the rates of Customs duty applied to goods imported into the UK. However, it would mean that goods imported into the UK from the EU would be subject to Customs duties (and vice versa), whereas they are currently duty free. 

The average rate of Customs duty applied to goods imported into the EU is approximately 5%.  This is figure is an average, with some goods being subject to much lower (nil in some cases) or higher rates of Customs duties. For example, the EU has a 10% rate of Customs duty for cars, albeit there are preferential rates for certain countries.   


Clearly, the imposition of Customs duties on goods exported from the UK to the EU could make UK businesses less price competitive, as the Customs duties payable would have to be built into the price of the goods. Customs duties on goods imported into the UK from the EU could mean higher prices for UK consumers. 

A Hard Brexit under the WTO rules could, therefore, impact the UK’s economy. It is, however, worth remembering that international trade in goods makes up a relatively small proportion of the UK’s output and, therefore, the impact of Brexit on the services sector may be a higher priority for the government, at least in the short to medium term.

So, what now?

At this stage, it is impossible to predict the outcome of the UK’s Brexit negotiations. However, given the huge complexity of this task, it seems quite possible that Customs duties will be imposed on goods traded between the UK and EU, at least in the short to medium term, whilst a UK – EU trade agreement is concluded. One thing that is clear is that the government is going to find that negotiating a Hard Brexit will be very hard.

Businesses involved in EU trade in goods should keep a close eye on how the negotiations progress, the impact it will have on the ability to compete with EU businesses and the opportunities that it may create with non-EU countries. 

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