Trump's trade deal plays an even bigger part in the UK election than you realise

There are concerns about the damage a US trade deal could do to our whole regulatory system – from food standards to consumer protections to workers’ rights

Trump told Nigel Farage he has a 'magic wand'

It’s a rare thing for a British general election campaign to be dominated by a trade deal, particularly one that does not yet exist. But a post-Brexit deal with Donald Trump’s America is more than your routine trade deal – it is a symbol for what sort of country we want to be, and as such defines the dividing line in the upcoming election.

For Boris Johnson, as for other leaders of the Leave campaign, Brexit was always an opportunity to move the British economy further in the direction of the US, slashing and burning our rights and protections, and handing our public services to the free market.

But a trade deal with the US would provide the legal backing to force this vision on the British economy. And whatever Donald Trump said this week, a deep and far-reaching trade deal with the US, touching on nearly every aspect of the British economy, would be possible under Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal – the deal was designed specifically with that in mind.

That’s why Jeremy Corbyn kicked off Labour’s campaign this week by claiming a US trade deal was an existential threat to the NHS. He’s right. We’ve known for many years that US healthcare giants want to get their hands on the NHS, and that they see a trade deal as a means of doing that. It would lock in the our current culture of outsourcing contracts to mega US corporations and allow those businesses to sue the British government in secret if their “rights” are violated. In effect the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act, a Labour manifesto promise, would become near impossible.

But the threat to the NHS goes deeper. This week Channel 4’s Dispatches exposed how the US government wants to use a trade deal to prevent the NHS from being able to control medicine prices. Trump has said countries like Britain are “freeloaders” and must allow the market to dictate drug prices. But the NHS already spends £18 billion a year on drugs and is increasingly having to ration them because of spiralling prices. Dispatches showed that Big Pharma’s agenda would potentially hike up the NHS drugs bill to £45 billion, or £500m a week, presenting a profound threat to our health system.

There are similar threats to public services across the board. But there are also concerns about the damage a US trade deal could do to our whole regulatory system – from food standards to consumer protections to workers’ rights.

Food standards are the most famous example. The British public has repeatedly made clear that they don’t care for chickens washed in chlorine, nor for cows stuffed with hormones, or pigs full of antibiotics. These methods of industrial farming, horrific for the animals involved and disastrous for small farmers’ livelihoods, proliferate in the US. But a trade deal with Britain, Trump says, must allow these products into UK markets.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. A 400-page US report details a stomach-churning list of foods the US would like to import into Britain – which might result in more pus in your milk, more pesticides on your vegetables, more maggots in your orange juice. The US also opposes the EU’s “cautious” approach to approving genetically modified goods. They argue that this is a matter of customer choice. But that’s disingenuous, both because importing this food will inevitably drive down standards here, and because the US dislikes the sort of food labelling that allows the consumer to make an informed choice.

Trade deals carry the weight of international law, but evade all the normal scrutiny and accountability of our law-making process. They are negotiated in secret, and even MPs have no right to look at the texts under discussion. Once completed, MPs can’t amend or even stop a trade deal. They’re lucky if they get a debate. This week, we discovered that so eager are civil servants to keep the details of a US trade deal away from public debate that they use code words to describe worrying aspects of negotiations.

Many modern trade deals even incorporate a special legal system only accessible to big business and overseas investors. In these “corporate courts”, big business can sue governments for treating them “unfairly”. In reality, this gives corporations a way of bullying governments. These secret courts have been used to try to stop countries from passing legislation to put cigarettes in “plain packaging’”, and just last month we found that the Netherlands is being threatened by an energy company which thinks it’s unfair that the Dutch government wants to phase out the use of climate-devastating coal. Just imagine the cases that could be brought against a radical reforming government in Britain by US corporations.

So why is Boris Johnson so eager to adopt such rules from the US?

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Because it accords with his own vision for Britain, a vision shared by his hardline cabinet. Johnson has been clear that we must diverge from EU standards post Brexit precisely because he embraces this deregulatory agenda. Thatcherite Trade Secretary Liz Truss has said such divergence is vital to Britain being able to strike the sort of deep free market trade deals she is promoting.

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to defy the polls in this election, he is quite right to highlight the implications of a US trade deal.

Because, for the majority of British people, a huge amount is at stake in this election.

Do we really want to take back control from the elite interests who have gambled with our economy regardless of the consequences? The more we focus on the dangers of a trade deal with Trump, the more chance the opposition has of cutting through the Brexit divisions.

Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now, a campaign group that mobilises people in the UK for change, and act in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the global south

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