The US has laid out its annual trade “wish list” and it will not make easy reading for David Davis and Liam Fox’s team of negotiators.
The 500-page tome from the US Trade Representative (USTR) published this week firmly espouses the virtues of free trade and less regulation, just as Donald Trump proposed slapping a further $100bn (£71.5bn) of import levies on Chinese goods.
The document lays out what the US sees as restrictions to trade all around the world. It wants to get rid of “onerous” rules on everything from animal welfare to chemicals to the import of crops for biofuel.
The USTR’s biggest concern is the increasing importance to US trade policy of testing, labelling and certification requirements and “sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures”.
What does this mean in plain English? Essentially, it’s health and safety, which, ironically, was one of the many issues that annoyed some people into voting to leave in the EU referendum.
In Britain, the complex area of product standards has been reduced down to the totemic issue of chlorine-washed chickens – a simple way of saying that US farmers treat animals, dead or alive, in ways EU officials, and the British public, don’t like.
The USTR’s report clearly shows that the US is unlikely to budge on issues of animal welfare or food safety, whatever “red lines” the environment secretary, Michael Gove, might claim to have set.
“The United States remains concerned about a number of measures the EU maintains ostensibly for the purposes of food safety and protecting human, animal, or plant life or health,” the USTR said.
These measures “unnecessarily restrict trade without furthering their safety objectives because they are not based on scientific principles, maintained with sufficient scientific evidence, or applied only to the extent necessary”.
The issue is much deeper than the debate around chlorine-washed chicken would suggest. The UK, as part of the EU, does not get its own section in the USTR report, but the 47-page chapter devoted to America’s gripes about the EU, points to where trade negotiations between the two partners in the “special relationship” might head.
Few industries are left untouched. The USTR rails against the burden of EU food labelling as well as restrictions on cosmetics and pesticides.
It bemoans the fact that accreditation bodies for product standards must be public and nonprofit, when private American firms could do the job.
It complains about the widely recognised CE safety mark, so expect that to go.
On chemicals, the EU’s regulations impose “extensive registration, testing and data requirements on all chemicals manufactured or imported into the EU in quantities greater than a metric ton”; something that most British citizens probably support. The USTR says it does too, but argues that some requirements are overly onerous or “simply unnecessary”.
Restrictions on biofuel crops, which a number of studies have shown can potentially be worse for climate change than fossil fuels, are also highlighted as a burden.
Minimum unit pricing of alcohol, set to be introduced in Scotland, could also come under pressure. The USTR criticises a public health bill in Ireland which proposes minimum unit pricing as well as labelling requirements for alcohol.
The USTR says the measures “have the potential to generate additional administrative costs and detrimentally impact the ability of US exporters to reallocate product in the European market”.
The document also confirms that the US will effectively push to allow American-produced Cornish pasties or Cumberland sausages by scrapping EU rules around the geographical origins of certain foods.
It seems likely that these sorts of issues will continue to dominate the debate ahead of more pressing concerns over safety standards, the environment and public health.
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