On Tory Brexit Dangers

In a follow on from our week of Brexit pieces, we look more concretely at the Tories' plans for a 'Global Britain' Brexit. Why is this so damaging and what concrete steps can we take to challenge it? Liz Murray of Global Justice Now explains...

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, has long argued the biggest prize from Brexit would be a trade deal with the US. And while the path to Brexit seems to shift daily, often throwing up more questions than are being answered about the UK’s future trade relationship with Europe and the rest of the world (or, indeed, whether Brexit will happen at all), it’s important we prepare for a time when the Tory government may get the chance to go full steam ahead with its vision of a ‘Global Britain’ with trading links around the world.

There are many reasons to be concerned about what this might look like. The new wave of international trade deals we’ve seen recently – which include the notorious EU-US trade deal TTIP, the EU-Canada deal CETA and the multilateral Trade in Services Agreement or (TiSA) – demonstrate that trade deals are no longer just about trade. These deals effectively change the rules of global governance and further a neo-liberal agenda by attacking regulation, handing power to multinationals, opening up public services to privatisation and shifting wealth from labour to capital. And this is all being negotiated by closed doors.

None of this will come as a huge surprise to the left. Given that the UK government was one of the most fervent cheerleaders for TTIP, despite huge public opposition to the deal, we can safely assume that post-Brexit trade deals of a similar ilk may well be on the cards. But this raises another question: what might that mean here in the UK given we’d have substantially less bargaining power against the US than the EU did with TTIP?

Trump’s most senior business representative recently warned that any post-Brexit deal with Washington would hinge on the UK scrapping rules set by Brussels, particularly those governing farming and food safety. Last month, the leading UK food and farming charity the Soil Association published the ‘top ten’ safety risks posed by a US free trade deal. These included the infamous chlorine washed chicken and hormone fed beef, but also food colourants, herbicides, flour treatment, dough improver and using chicken litter as animal feed. And in the last few weeks, newspapers have reported that the Prime Minister had refused to rule out giving US companies access to NHS contracts as part of a future trade deal with Donald Trump’s White House.

This is just the start, though – a ‘Global Britain’ would of course look to set up trade deals beyond the US. Only this week, Liam Fox delivered a high profile speech in London extolling his vision and confirming he has “opened 14 informal trade dialogues with 21 countries from the United States to Australia to the UAE.” This list of 21 countries also includes human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

If you compound the UK government’s support for TTIP-style neoliberal trade deals with Liam Fox’s (below) post-colonial ‘Empire 2’ strategy launched this time last year and you really get a picture of what a moral-free Tory-led trade policy is going to look like. Add to that the lack of democratic scrutiny and accountability around trade deals and you have a pretty toxic cocktail.

New legislation goes through a process of many stages: consultation, scrutiny, debate and voting. But these trade agreements are currently entirely negotiated under the Royal Prerogative. Using these prerogative powers, the UK government is able to: decide when and who to start negotiations with; decide its own priorities and objectives; conduct negotiations, usually in secret; and conclude and sign the eventual deal.

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Under the current procedure, there's no requirement to consult public or civil society organisations and no role for the UK parliament or any of the devolved administrations. There's a clear democratic deficit, with the UK government effectively able to set up, develop and finalise trade deals with no oversight or accountability.

But right now, we have the chance to change this and give elected parliamentarians the power to scrutinise, amend or stop future trade deals – through the Trade Bill. Much less talked about than the EU Withdrawal Bill, it's nevertheless a vital piece of the Brexit puzzle currently making its way through Westminster.

There’s a big campaign underway to amend the Bill so impact assessments are mandatory, public scrutiny is the norm, and parliamentarians get to sign off the negotiating mandate, scrutinise the ongoing texts, amend trade deals where necessary and vote on the final text.

Of course, there must be a voice for the devolved administrations too. While trade policy may be reserved to Westminster, many of the things trade deals impact on are devolved to the Scottish parliament and part of everyday life in Scotland. Environmental regulations, farming, food safety, public health policy and climate change policy are all devolved to one extent or another, but all could be barriers to trade and come under downward pressure from TTIP-style trade agreements.

Decisions on public services and public procurement are taken here in Scotland, but this new wave of trade deals would treat both things as new market opportunities for transnational corporations, locking in existing privatisation and putting on pressure for more. As well as lobbying to get the Trade Bill amended during its passage through Westminster, we have a chance to influence things here in Scotland. The UK government needs the Scottish parliament to give its consent to the Trade Bill before it becomes law.

If we want to effectively challenge the Tories' frightening 'Global Britain' vision of Brexit, then we should pressure the Scottish parliament to withhold consent until the Bill is amended to ensure Scotland's elected politicians have a say. The Finance and Constitution committee at Holyrood is holding an inquiry into the Trade Bill at the moment.

Global Justice Now, who I represent as head of Scottish Campaigns, is part of the Trade Justice Scotland coalition, which is made up of 27 campaigning organisations, trade unions and local activist groups. Together we’re calling on them to withhold consent until the Bill is amended. We’ve submitted evidence to the committee and will be presenting the members of the committee with an open letter signed by organisations and individuals from across Scotland.

Of course, there's a distant possibility the UK government use Brexit to reset its relationship with the rest of the world and set up trading arrangements that will be genuinely beneficial to all. If that doesn’t happen, we think it’s vital we do all we can now to set things up so we have a chance to stop the Tories railroading us into their imperialist Global Britain vision for the future.

For more information on Global Justice Now’s campaign on trade democracy see: http://www.globaljustice.org.uk/campaigns/trade

@globaljusticesc