The current Trade Bill may be our only opportunity to reform the system before we leave the EU.
The government’s Trade Bill has now passed through its second reading in the House of Commons. Liam Fox said the second reading was “an opportunity for debate, to counter mistruths and answer concerns.” There is a lot riding on this Bill, not least the integrity of the UK’s democracy.
Yet, when faced with strong opposition to the Bill in parliament, Fox retreated to the dogma that this Bill excludes ‘new’ trade deals. As the Bill moves through to the committee stage later this week, it’s important to separate the fact from the fiction about what is and isn’t a new deal.
This Trade Bill was supposed to put in place the legislative framework for the UK to have an independent trade policy after Brexit.
A framework for parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability should be a core part of this – it has been over 40 years since the UK directly negotiated trade deals and our procedures need updating for the modern world.
The problem is, in its current format, the Trade Bill contains none of that, and instead starts where the Withdrawal Bill left off – with a government power grab that would give ministers the authority to develop trade deals in secret.
Parliament would not have the right to scrutinise or vote on the final deals and the public would be shut out of the process altogether.
If we are to believe what Fox is saying, there is no need for the Trade Bill to include vital transparency and scrutiny provisions because it doesn’t cover ‘new’ trade deals, just the process of replacing existing EU deals with equivalent UK ones.
The EU agreements have already been through EU scrutiny processes and the UK ones, he insists, will be like for like, so there’s no need for parliament to review or vote on them. But this is where things start to get murky.
Transparent or democratic
Because - as Liam Fox is well aware - it will never be as simple as cutting and pasting EU deals into UK ones. The UK will, in fact, be developing a whole raft of new trade deals. They may be with the same partner countries as the EU deals, but the content is unlikely to be the same.
The EU is one of the largest economies in the world. It has the ability to negotiate trade deals on terms that most other countries cannot.
The UK will not simply be able to replicate these agreements word for word. They will have to be renegotiated – as Fox effectively conceded in the debate – and many of our partners will want to make changes, quite possibly substantial ones.
If the Trade Bill passes as it is, the government will have the power to renegotiate these deals without any parliamentary or public oversight. This is neither transparent nor democratic. And it’s the opposite of taking back control.
While the bill is limited to replacing EU deals, Fox is already getting started on what he refers to as ‘new’ deals – those with countries that the EU does not currently have deals with such as the US.
While these can’t formally become negotiations until after Brexit, a lot of scoping and preparatory decisions are being made, without any parliamentary oversight. A legislative framework needs to be being put in place now, so that scrutiny and accountability can become a standard, routine part of these preparations.
However, the secretary of state has not as yet committed to developing a second Trade Bill that would cover development of such future trade deals beyond the EU ones.
On Tuesday of last week, Fox mentioned potential ‘vehicles’ for individual deals and ‘proposals’ about consultation, but stopped short of committing to comprehensive new legislation that would set out the framework of how we do trade policy.
This means that, in spite of what the government says, the current Trade Bill may be our only opportunity to reform the system before we leave the EU.
Liam Fox seeks to demonise those with concerns about this Bill, but that is no more than a smokescreen. The government itself recognised the need for trade policy to be transparent and inclusive in its Trade White Paper released in October last year.
We’re not asking for anything more than this – we’re simply calling for trade policy that is transparent and subject to the same level of scrutiny as any domestic legislation.
This is nothing more than good democratic practice and without it, when we leave the EU, our MPs will have less oversight of trade agreements than our MEPs currently do in the European Parliament.
Parliament has a vital opportunity over the next few weeks to ensure this is not the case and to put in place a democratic process for agreeing trade deals.
Sophie Hardefeldt is the Senior Network Advisor at the Trade Justice Movement.