Or rather it doesn’t. The World Trade Organization (OMC in French) is in crisis. While it is supposed to regulate 98% of international trade, between its 164 country members, i.e. just about all countries, it has totally failed to update rules mostly fixed prior to 1995 when it was founded. Then, global trade operated in a world prior to substantial global supply chains, the use of the internet to drive trade or the emergence of China as a major player in the global system. The Doha round of talks, started in 2001, have stalled. Meanwhile the appellate body - the part of the WTO that is supposed to adjudicate trade disputes - is on its knees. It has run out of judges, with all new appointments being blocked by the USA, which has begun to use brute power to leverage trade, as opposed to the multilateral rules based system that the WTO stands for.

Headquartered in Geneva, down the hill from the UN by the shore of Lake Geneva, the WTO employs around 630 staff and receives many diplomats who are accredited specifically to the institution (as opposed to the UN). Some of these, such as the Russians, have completely separate missions to the WTO. Its functioning is opaque. The main bodies operate behind closed doors, with the press excluded as soon as the discussions, sometimes quite heated, begin.

This is the theatre into which the UK may suddenly be thrown. The idea that the country would be able to function normally after exiting the EU without concluding a deal becomes ever more far-fetched the closer one gets to the details. It is one thing for the UK to break away from the EU group under whose umbrella the British have operated at the WTO until recently and post its own schedules of tariffs and quotas. It's quite another for the 163 other members to unanimously agree to them. The relatively small size of the British economy compared with that of the EU gives it much less leverage to persuade other countries to accept its tariffs.

As much as the UK has found it difficult to find a workable arrangement with the European Union it may discover that the WTO constitutes an equally challenging environment, only with a vastly increased number of members and highly complex rules of engagement. The hallowed 'WTO rules' which strident Brexit supporters in Britain refer to in passing may themselves be in flux, with an organisation struggling to assert its authority.

"It's not going to be the end of the world in the sense that trade is going to stop and that everything is going to fall down" says Roberto Acevedo, the WTO's director general "but it's not going to be a walk in the park either." This from the man who is supposed to be confident of the organisation's ability to adjudicate.

The UK is attempting to 'roll-over' existing EU arrangements at the WTO with individual countries to apply to the UK on its own. As of 1st September 2019 a number of deals have been signed, and while they include Denmark and South Korea, the Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein figure among the grand total of 13 arrangements deals struck so far. Switzerland is the largest partner of the UK to have signed an agreement, but it only just squeezes in at number 10 in the list of the UK's top ten partners, way behind many individual members of EU such as Germany, France, Italy or Spain.
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