The new paradigm has not been established yet. Kuhn describes a protracted battle that takes place during times of shift as the crisis plays out over what ought to replace the discredited old model. Trump has fired the starting gun on the battle for the future of the global trading system. In his world, the US will draw up the gates and manage with only those favored few bilateral partners that share similar perspectives. The European Union just presented a plan to save the current WTO. But because they have not yet recognized the extent to which we are standing on the precipice of the shift, the plan has already been derided as weak. It tweaks around the edges of the existing system. Canada is holding a conference of “middle powers” next month to brainstorm new ideas. They will need to be bold. In designing a way forward, officials need to recognize that whatever comes in the future will—of necessity—be radically different that the system that we have been comfortable with for more than seven decades.
Fortunately, in the EU-Singapore FTA ruling, the Court took a relatively narrow perspective. It said that the EU had the authority (or “competence”) to negotiate and approve trade agreements on all topics except a very limited slice of investment (basically portfolio investment) and investor protection. These two issues will need to be approved by the member states. While this approval is being sought for EU-Singapore, nearly all of the FTA can begin. The agreement always had imagined a lengthy approval process, so negotiators planned for a provisional entry into force clause that can now be activated for all aspects of the agreement that fall under EU competence. In practice, this means that 95% or more of the deal will start. Again—for firms, this means the entire EU-Singapore FTA agreement except for commitments on portfolio investment promises and the elements of Chapter 9 on investment called the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) will be starting shortly.
None of these, however, can start until the WTO issues have been sorted. Hence it is urgent to get the UK/EU internal discussions underway immediately on how to divide up WTO commitments and start the painstaking process of scheduling independent commitments for the UK. It may go smoothly and quickly. But it may not. And companies would be well advised to pay careful attention to what happens in Geneva—these apparently arcane discussions about schedules and commitments could become the rules that govern trade for UK businesses for a long time to come.