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Ngaire Woods
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Ngaire Woods, Founding Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance at University of Oxford.

Project Syndicate: Early this year, you warned that, since the Brexit referendum, global economic conditions have become far more hostile to a “plucky country wanting to set out on its own.” A no-deal Brexit, in particular, has become “even riskier.” Given British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparent determination to leave the European Union by the October 31 deadline, and his suspension of Parliament, could it still happen?

Ngaire Woods: The UK Parliament has a long history of inventiveness and resistance to abuses of executive power. The current situation is no exception. A new law requires Johnson to request an extension until January, unless Parliament approves a deal with the European Union by October 19. He says he would “rather be dead in a ditch.” With a court having already ruled that Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was unlawful, MPs are now preparing to take legal action if he does not comply with the new law. In short, the battle over Brexit appears set to shift to the courts.

Meanwhile, some of the conditions under which Britain plans to “go it alone” are getting ever trickier. New trade deals with international partners will take time to settle, and even after they are concluded, they cannot stand in for Europe. For example, the United Kingdom’s total trade with Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand is less than its trade with just one small European partner, the Netherlands.

In the interim, the UK hopes to rely on World Trade Organization rules. But the WTO’s capacity to adjudicate trade disputes is waning, owing to America’s blocking of appointments to the Appellate Body. Unless the United States alters its stance, that body will have only one judge left by the end of this year, rendering it non-functional.

Finally, in negotiating trade arrangements with the US and China while those two are locked in an escalating trade war, the UK will need to stand together with its major trading partners. Not even a “special relationship” can substitute for market size in trade negotiations. For the sake of global trade, accelerating progress on new regional trade arrangements – such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and a new deal between the EU and the Mercosur bloc of Latin American countries – is encouraging. Yet a post-Brexit UK is not part of any of these arrangements.

PS: In April, you argued that protest movements without strong leadership are far less likely to bring about concrete change. And yet this seems to be a source of strength for protesters in Hong Kong. With no – or very few – identifiable leaders, the authorities are scrambling to arrest any prominent pro-democracy lawmaker or activist. How sustainable is the Hong Kong model, and what are its prospects for success?

NW: The advocacy of the pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong in Europe last week shows that there is leadership among the Hong Kong protesters. What is difficult for the Hong Kong protesters, as with any other protest group, is maintaining discipline over how to protest and what end goal to accept. Like opponents of Brexit in the UK, Hong Kong’s protesters have a much easier time rallying against a particular policy (the proposed extradition bill) than agreeing on further ambitious demands. Are Hong Kong’s protesters fighting for nothing less than fully free and fair elections? Do Britain’s “Remainers” want another referendum or a new election?

PS: Lamenting how Sino-American rivalry is undermining multilateralism, you have argued that WTO leaders “could be far bolder and more creative in finding ways to support rules-based trade.” What do you have in mind?

NW: What I have in mind is coming up with ways to leverage existing rules and processes to support member states, rather than plaintively arguing for new ones. For example, there is a need to bolster and deepen countries’ bilateral obligations to seek resolution where WTO rules are broken. There is also a need to support new regional trade arrangements, including by offering more robust monitoring and adjudication, and to serve as a trusted source of information – of potential “win-sets” from cooperation among countries – and of adjudication and enforcement.

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Woods recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Woods's picks:

  • Rise of the Nazis

    Rise of the Nazis

    At a time when minority rights and constitutional protections are under attack in so many places, it is crucial to understand how a government with constitutional rules and functioning courts could fall.

  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

    Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

    Stephenson’s book offers insight into what it takes for societies to create and apply laws fairly. It is a must-read not only for every American policymaker, lawyer, judge, and police officer, but also for people around the world.

From the PS Archive

From 2017
As the world’s financial leaders gathered for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings two years ago, Woods argued that by repeatedly making the case for globalization without addressing ordinary people’s concerns, elites may be doing more harm than good. Read the commentary.

From 2018
Last year, Woods argued that if the old guard is ever to wrest back control from the political upstarts, it’s time to stop complaining about populists and follow their lead instead. Watch the video.

Around the web

Woods answers questions about the new globalization, arguing that it is increasingly “sustained by empires.” Read the interview.

Woods explains why a second Brexit referendum is essential. Read the commentary.

At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Woods and Kishore Mahbubani consider the question of whether the West’s power and stability has reached a tipping point. Watch the video.

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