Tomorrow MPs will debate a trade deal with the United States. They should make the most of it, because it could be the only chance they get to air their opinions on this subject before a standard-slashing “America first”, trade deal is brought back for them to approve. And approve it they will have to do – under the current system there’s no practical way for MPs to stop a trade deal they don’t like.
In a democratic country, you might expect that Thursday would be the point at which parliament would be able to set Liam Fox’s negotiating objectives, draw red lines, or apply some sort of framework which lays out the type of trade deal Britain wants with the US. But that’s now how Brexit Britain works, and MPs will only know what the secretary of state wants them to know. They have no right to see any of the negotiating texts, or any legal advice, impact assessments or anything beyond an occasional bland update.
In just over five weeks time, Fox can head to Washington where our Dad’s Army of negotiators will face the most experienced negotiating team in the world, determined to force Britain to accept chlorine-washed chickens and allow big business to get its hands on the NHS. What can possibly go wrong?
The debate follows a consultation on four trade deals now being proposed by Fox: with the US, Australia, New Zealand and, most extraordinary of all, Britain’s geography-defying accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The consultation was meaningless; it didn’t set out the type of deal the government wanted to do with these countries, or make any assessments of the changes the deals might bring about. It did little more than ask the anodyne question: Is trade with these countries a good thing?
But that didn’t stop a record-breaking 600,000 people and organisations responding, largely laying out concerns that these trade deals could change the sort of food of we eat for the worse, could threaten the livelihoods of farmers, could undermine the NHS, and could introduce a “corporate court” system which would open our government up to being sued – in secret – for introducing perfectly reasonable environmental protection, public health standards and improving workers rights.
Doubtless Fox will tomorrow tell these concerned citizens that this is all scaremongering. But sadly, that’s far from the case. We know precisely what US multinationals want because they told us last month: a range of standard-slashing policies that would undermine our rights and protections, as well as the livelihoods of many workers, farmers and citizens. We also know because the US administration is far more open than our own government, and tells us publicly what they want – a stomach-churning array of imports including more GMOs, lower chemical standards and huge new powers to “big pharma” and “big tech” corporations.
In all likelihood, none of this will concern Fox, who seems to know “the price of everything and the value of nothing”. His belief is that the free market will work its magic to provide us with cheaper goods, and that will be beneficial for consumers. He doesn’t seem to recognise that consumers are largely also producers – and that a cut-price pair of jeans made in appalling conditions doesn’t make up for losing your job.
When it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership we can be clearer still – after all the deal is already signed, and has been widely criticised by trade unions and campaign groups across the world for entrenching deregulation and liberalisation. Signing this deal would also move us away from the EU “precautionary” system of trying to prevent harmful products coming onto to the market, to one which says “let’s not worry until something bad happens”.
It seems incredible that such changes could be brought about with so little input from parliament. The House of Lords is none too impressed, which is why peers have put Fox’s Trade Bill on hold until he outlines his proposals to give parliament a proper role in overseeing trade policy. They will certainly be disappointed with his response, and it’s to be hoped that at that point, expected to be reached in the next two weeks, they use their powers to radically amend the bill and force the government to implement a democratic system for holding the secretary of state to account for his trade policy.
If we fail in this task, then we better get ready for a long campaign ahead. It’s been more than two years since we beat the dreadful EU-US trade deal known as TTIP. What we’re looking at now is TTIP on steroids.
We must defeat this threat. The government’s strategy, in so far as we can tell, is to give in to the US on agriculture, in return for the US letting the City of London run amok in the American economy. Finance and services are the only bit of the British economy Fox seems to care about, in his desire to create a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames. This would be bad for British workers, bad for creating a more equal country, and bad for the rest of the world which needs to deal with the damage of our financial giants. We cannot let it happen.
Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now
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