Post-Brexit trade tariffs

Published: 17 Mar 2017

In brief


If we left the EU without an alternative trade deal in place then we’d still have a choice about whether to put tariffs on imports.


That’s correct. But we wouldn’t have a voluntary choice about the tariffs other countries put on UK exports. We’d also have to apply the same tariffs to all our trading partners in the absence of any trade deals.

“Would we need to apply tariffs on goods coming into this country if we were out of the customs union? No we would not that would be a voluntary choice for us, there is no need for tariffs.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, 16 March 2017

It’s correct that the UK would be able to choose what tariffs it put on imports from other countries, should it leave the EU customs union without a free trade agreement in place.

But we wouldn’t have a voluntary choice about what tariffs were put on our exports. Mr Rees-Mogg went some way to saying this himself when he said:

“We would be in a very strong position to retaliate if vicious tariffs were imposed on us.”

Whether or not we’d be in a “strong position” is a more complicated and speculative question than we can confirm or deny in a factcheck.

We can say that other countries wouldn’t be able to pick on the UK and impose specific tariffs on UK-made goods or services. And broadly, the UK would also have to apply the same tariffs to everyone else if it didn’t have any trade deals.

The UK will still be a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after it leaves the EU. Members of the WTO have to put the same tariffs on every trading partner worldwide, unless they are part of a customs union or have some kind of free trade agreement.

The EU customs union is one such agreement. That’s why there’s often disagreement about whether to think of the EU as essentially pro-free trade or protectionist. It removes tariff barriers between its members, negotiates Free Trade deals on behalf of all of them, and imposes a Common External Tariff on anyone it doesn't have a trade deal with.

The EU also tries to eliminate other barriers to free trade among its members, like non-tariff barriers, and there’s a question about whether the UK will have the same influence over these things once it leaves the customs union.

Non-tariff barriers include things like common safety standards and professional regulations. Businesses find it harder to sell goods and services in other countries if they aren’t the same.

This factcheck is part of a roundup of BBC Question Time. Read the roundup.


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