This is the morning’s front page that greeted me on 21 December 2017. Several things immediately spring to the forefront of my mind:
- We weren’t supposed to start trade negotiations until after we’ve left the EU; so what is the Department for International Trade doing discussing transparency – or rather the lack of it – with the US? Shouldn’t they be looking into the complex issues of what the trade relationship with the EU needs to look like post-Brexit at this stage?
- And how are our representatives in Parliament supposed to assess any trade deal that might be struck between the UK and the US if they don’t get to see the detail?
- And why is there a need for such secrecy? The shadow of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Development Partnership) looms in the background of this headline. This, too, was going to be negotiated in secret and it was only massive public protest that opened up (and arguably scotched) that deal. And why was the public up in arms about it: because TTIP opened up the risk of the NHS being open to the US private healthcare market; because TTIP opened up the risk of our (in this case EU but the UK has the same) food safety standards being undermined; and because TTIP enshrined the Investor State Dispute Settlement process into the treaty. That treaty hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen in this form. But that is no thanks to the UK government. Indeed, the UK was one of the cheerleaders for it.
Some things are already clear. If we leave the EU (and although there might be some chance that this foolish decision could be reversed but I don’t rate that chance very high) there will be a move to enter into a trade deal with the US (and with many other countries). That, in itself, is not a bad thing in those circumstances. It is a necessary thing.
What is also clear – through the story behind this headline – is that our government does not want public scrutiny of what it negotiates arguably on our behalf and for our benefit. This is seriously bad news. We need to know that any trade deal, be it with the EU, the US or anyone else, is good for people and good for the planet.
Taking just the three key issues which were the trigger for mass opposition to TTIP, those risks are still there and very much at the core of any trade deal with the US:
- Opening up the NHS to competition from US Healthcare companies would likely undermine the nature of the NHS even more than the marketization and creeping privatisation we have seen over the last few years have already done. There are powerful forces at work who will not rest until we have an insurance based system that means people will have to pay for health care at the point of delivery and their access to healthcare will depend on the type of insurance they can get and/or afford. This is the exact opposite of what the NHS is about and we need to be vigilant in the context of trade negotiations
- It is near enough a certainty that the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism will be part of any such trade deal. This essentially gives foreign investors – for which read multinationals who want to muscle in on our markets to the detriment of local companies – the right to take our government to private, secret arbitration panels (they call them courts but they are anything but) to curb regulation and exact high fines for any regulations the multinationals don’t like. There is no appeal. Essentially it is a tool for multinationals to take over government by blackmailing the elected governments into doing what they want or fleece them. The other side of this ISDS nightmare is, of course, that local companies have no access to such arbitration panels and therefore are disadvantaged in their own home markets. There is only one way to describe this: it stinks to high heaven.
- In the UK we have very high standards for food safety and animal welfare. They are nowhere near high enough; we still have battery chickens and we still have large-scale factory farming for cattle, dairy and no doubt other sectors. But our standards are much higher than those in the US. A secret trade deal could allow our standards to be compromised so that we can import US agricultural products that are of a lesser standard than ours. Chlorine washed chickens won’t be on the fresh poultry counters of your upmarket supermarkets; but you can bet that they will be in any ready meal made with chicken. High levels of antibiotics in US beef will, one way or another, get into our food chain through cheap burgers and the like.
These risks are just for starters. There is likely lots more that can be hidden in a secret trade deal that we definitely wouldn’t like if we knew about it. Why are they going to be kept secret if there isn’t likely to be significant opposition to them?
And if TTIP is anything to go by, discussions with industry and multinationals did happen – also behind closed doors – so that the very people that look to their bottom line as the only measure of decency, the very people who see ordinary folk as fodder for their marketing without much reflection of what is good for people and planet were the ones who did see the small print. But the taxpayers, citizens, users of services, customers of shops and so on, the people whose lives will be affected greatly by such a deal weren’t included in the debate.
So, we have been warned. Now is the time to get organised. I don’t support Brexit but Brexit was fought on the slogan of ‘take back control’. Well, that’s what we have to do: challenge our government to put control back into the hands of ordinary people via their elected representatives.