Wednesday 22 January 2020 10:00 pm

Exclusive: Downing Street plots for UK to 'take up its flag' at WTO months ahead of agreed time

Downing Street wants the UK to “take up its flag” at the next WTO meeting months ahead of the time agreed with the EU, City A.M. has learned.

Conversations are taking place at Number 10 over whether the UK should sit independently from the EU at the March WTO meeting, the first time it will not have sat as part of the trading bloc in 40 years, according to two sources close to the matter.

The move is likely to ruffle feathers back in Brussels. Although the UK leaves the EU on 31 January, the transition period runs until the end of 2020. 

As such this move goes against the ‘duty of sincere cooperation’ that all EU member states are bound by, and is likely to be viewed by Brussels as antagonistic. The move will see the UK sit next to the US by virtue of the alphabetical system.

A government source stressed that conversations within Number 10 were ongoing but added: “The clear view is that we take our seat”.  

The question of when to move the UK’s permanent representative to the WTO Julian Braithwaite into the spotlight is thought to centre around increasingly “tense” talks on fishing subsidies, a totemic issue for Brexiters.  

A second source said: “Ever since Article 50 the UK has sat at the back of the room, near the door… but at this point we could play a big role. 

“Other WTO members will want to know whether we are on the EU side of the table, promoting fish subsidies, or trying to lower them. The UK could have a dramatic effect…. This may be an opportunity for the UK to actually diverge from European thinking.”

Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe, warned that such a move would probably be challenged by the Commission.

“It’s not in the spirit of the duty of sincere cooperation, and were we a member state it would definitely be a breach, but you can run the argument that it’s never been considered in the context of a state leaving the EU before,” she said.

“It’s a bit like teenagers testing the boundaries – it’s staying out late, but not staying out all night,” she added.  

The Commission has already brought proceedings against the UK government for refusing to nominate a representative to take up a brief in Ursula von der Leyen’s cabinet.

It is now thought those proceedings will be “quietly dropped”.

Main image: Getty