Don't leave Liam Fox in charge of the international trade chicken coop

Chicken campaigners

Guy Taylor and colleagues from Global Justice Now campaign at Liam Fox's constituency. 

Parliament will debate Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) this Tuesday. Caroline Lucas of the Green party wants to increase the democratic control of international trade. Without it, the UK may start importing GM food and more chemically treated products, warns GUY TAYLOR

The stakes are high. Fox is insistent that a trade deal with the US is a panacea for many ills. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The progress of the Trade Bill through Parliament is due to resume after a lengthy pause. An amendment tabled by Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, two rebel Tory MPs, has been blocking the way.

Theresa May, the Prime Minister, and Liam Fox, the secretary of state for International Trade, are now confident they can beat the amendment, which calls for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit.

The bill as a whole is aimed at transposing EU trade deals into UK law, and is providing multiple headaches for the besieged Mr Fox. Some of the countries in trade deals with the EU aren’t too happy at seeing the same deal seamlessly flipped into UK law.

Big business

Fox is viewing these moves as simply a matter for the UK to decide, seemingly forgetting that a trade deal involves two countries’ governments. South Korea and Chile have both raised objections and expressed a desire to renegotiate terms with the UK.

Opposition MPs and campaigners see the Trade Bill as a chance of achieving a long desired aim – democratising the process by which trade deals are agreed.

A trade deal is an international treaty, is barely subject to any democratic process: the decision to start negotiating with any one country, and the basis of any agreement, is entirely a decision for the department for International Trade.

We want our elected representatives to have more of a say - given the huge influence of trade deals and their impact on so much more than simple border checks and tariff rates.

The negotiators are appointed by the secretary of state and work to a mandate set by the secretary of state. MPs have little or no influence. Lobbyists from big business, however, do seem to have the ear of the minister. 

Useless system

During negotiations, MPs and the public are kept completely in the dark. The deal is ‘laid before Parliament’ only once negotiators have agreed a final text.

The Government has 21 sitting days after it was laid to ratify the text. If the House of Commons agrees a resolution against ratification in those 21 days, then the government must explain why it wishes to ratify and gets a second chance to lay the deal before Parliament.

Indeed, this process can be repeated as often as the government wishes to pursue ratification of a deal. Parliament would have to have a monthly vote against any trade deal - indefinitely - to stop it from being implemented.

There is no record of a negative resolution ever being tabled in the House of Commons - let alone one being successful.

One might think that this bizarre and useless system dates back to the very beginning of parliament - but in fact it was introduced with the Constitutional Reform and Governments Act 2010, under Gordon Brown’s Labour government.

Democratise trade

The stakes are high. Fox is insistent that a trade deal with the US is a panacea for many ills. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, UK representatives have more influence over trade deals while we are fully a part of the European Union. – at least now our 73 MEPs have a vote on ratifying trade deals.

The latest trade deal to get the nod from the European Parliament - the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) - is a mega deal between the EU and Canada. It is doing the rounds getting national ratifications at present.

Lithuania and Finland have both debated and voted through the deal in the last few months.

The UK parliament is set to have a debate on CETA this Tuesday. This is a break with convention. It is a response to calls for trade democracy. But it is still only as a gesture, and does not set a precedent. 

The vote is likely to be an easy win for CETA and Fox. 

Take back control

The politics of Brexit will dominate proceedings: Remainers want to keep the UK as close to the programme of the EU as possible, Brexiters want to secure any and every chance of promoting the free trade dogma so many of them are so fond of.

But we need legislation in place to properly democratise trade deals into the future. The hope in this story revolves around an amendment, NC3, which has been tabled by Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, and others.

This motion demands a basic democratic role for MPs. It calls for a consultation with stakeholders before a mandate is drafted for negotiators. MPs would be given the right to feed into the mandate. Parliament would then have the right to vote down any trade deal if it is deemed to be unsatisfactory. It also provides for openness and transparency during negotiations.

You’d be hard pressed to find a milder and more reasonable set of demands.

I refuse to join the ranks of those who claim to know exactly what people were voting for in the referendum on June 2016. But I’m pretty sure I’m right when I say people didn’t want to take back control in order to gift it all to Mr Fox.

Genetically engineered

The stakes are high. Fox is insistent that a trade deal with the US is a panacea for many ills. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Donald Trump has had a 500 page document composed outlining many of the trade barriers US industry would like to see removed in any future deals that the US makes. And 48 pages are dedicated to the relationship with the EU. Food safety standards come in for a lot of attention. 

The US wants changes to pesticide maximum residue limits. It claims EU rules on this are commercially unviable.

The EU currently has a maximum residue level on diphenylamine of 0.01 ppm on apples and has removed authorisation for its use. The US wants the EU to accept a level 100 times greater in order that it may export apples to Europe.

The US wants to end the right of EU member states to ban genetically engineered plants, including the ban on cultivating biotechnology seed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Nutrition labelling

The US questions EU certification of Animal Welfare on official sanitary certificates, claiming such measures do not advance food safety or animal health objectives.

Recently Trump has also proclaimed a desire to charge more for pharmaceuticals in the UK and EU markets.

With big state backed purchasers of drugs, European countries have the clout to demand lower prices - not low enough, but lower than otherwise. In the US, privately owned smaller health care providers are more at mercy of the huge pharmaceutical corporations.

Trump wants to see more parity between buyers in that market, which will almost certainly see price hikes for the NHS.

Also in the document are questions over government subsidies for Airbus, EU restrictions on the transfer of personal data of its citizens outside the EU, the Fuel Quality Directive (which requires fossil fuel suppliers to reduce the lifecycle greenhouse gas intensity of transport fuel by six percent by 2020 and to report on the carbon intensity of these fuels) Country of Origin Labelling, and health and nutrition labelling.

Trading relations

All these, the US concludes, impede the flow of goods across the Atlantic in our direction. 

There’s more. It’s a huge document. But you get the picture. Fox flew out to Washington to negotiate away the steel tariffs that Trump inflicted on US imports a few weeks previously. He came back empty handed.

Boris Johnson went to Washington to try to save the Iran nuclear deal, with similar edifying results.

Anyone thinking this or future governments can break the ‘America First’ mantra of Trump is impressively naïve. We need the checks and balances of MPs scrutiny and votes.

Otherwise we face a situation of Fox and co playing about with future trading relations that will be set in place for years in not decades to come. And Fox is not fantastic. 

We have just a few short weeks to campaign for the strongest support for the progressive amendment, NC3. Global Justice Now is providing a platform for such a campaign. Please check it out.

This Author

Guy Taylor is a trade campaigner for Global Justice Now.

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