THE two sides of the Brexit debate do not agree on much, but they agree on this: if Britain fails to reach a trade deal with the EU it will have to revert to the “WTO option”. This involves trading only under rules set by the World Trade Organisation. The Leave camp is happy with this idea; Remainers less so. But the awkward truth is that the WTO option is not much of a fallback. Becoming an independent WTO member will be tortuous.

It is puzzling that Brexiteers, whose campaign was summed up as “Vote Leave, take back control”, seem happy with the WTO option. The WTO is truly global, with only a handful of countries outside it (zealous as they are about sovereignty, Brexiteers do not want to join the ranks of Turkmenistan and Nauru). But forsaking one unelected, unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels for another housed in a leafy district of Geneva seems perverse. WTO members are at the mercy of its “dispute-settlement” regime, which allows other countries to enforce penalties.

Inconsistency has its upside. Membership of the WTO appears to be good for trade. Most economists believe Britain’s overall trade will suffer if Britain leaves the single market. But Brexiteers argue that, out of the EU’s clutches, Britain will be the WTO’s star pupil, striking trade deals across the world. China’s explosive export growth...Continue reading