Toxic Trade Deals In A Post-Brexit Britain
The threats of doing a trade deal with the US have featured heavily in this election campaign so far - the Labour party has even turned the threat to our NHS drugs bill into a spoof of Boris Johnson’s infamous £350m claim on the side of a bus. Based on estimates by Professor Andrew Hill from the University of Liverpool, the NHS could be forced to pay £500m a week in higher drug prices from a trade deal with the US. This would be catastrophic for our already underfunded NHS. But it’s also just the tip of the iceberg of the threats that we face from a trade deal with Trump.
Trade deals are no longer just about buying and selling goods between two countries but cover a broad range of areas that affect every aspect of our lives. Essentially trade deals are about making sure laws and regulations don’t obstruct the free flow of trade and investment between partner countries. For the leading advocates of a hard-Brexit, leaving the EU was always seen as an opportunity to remodel the economy into a vision of deregulation and privatisation. And so post-Brexit trade deals are the perfect vehicle to make this vision a reality as trade deals are binding and carry the full force of international law. But this agenda to restructure the economy through trade deals has serious implications for the rest of us. So what does it look in practice?
Despite the government or Trump's claims that the NHS is not on the table in a US trade deal. The US government has previously said that it wants to use trade deals to force the NHS to pay higher drug prices. And in its negotiating objectives, it has explicitly set out that they want to weaken the way the NHS controls drug prices. But trade rules could also lock-in current and future levels of privatisation within our NHS. This would tie the hands of future governments from rolling back or reversing the extensive use of private companies operating within the NHS.
Another area that corporate America is keen to dismantle is our food and farming standards. As part of our membership of the EU, the UK has relatively high animal welfare and food standards with restrictions on the use of hormones, chlorine and antibiotics in animal products. These standards are vital to protecting public health and animal welfare and yet in the context of trade negotiations, they are seen by corporate agribusiness as barriers to trade. Again the US has been vocal about wanting to see these standards ripped up as part of a trade deal.
Modern trade deals could also restrict the ability of our government to tackle the climate emergency. Trade deals could include rules to make it harder to discriminate between dirty fossil fuels and renewable energy which would encourage sustained and increased use of the dirtiest fossil fuels. Meanwhile, clauses around 'regulatory cooperation’ would give the power to big business to shape regulations and challenge any ‘onerous’ or ‘unnecessary’ environmental policies.
If this all wasn’t bad enough, future post-Brexit trade deals could include corporate courts (or investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS). Corporate courts give foreign investors exclusive rights to sue governments for any policy decisions that corporations believe will affect their profits. They can sue for existing as well as future loss of profits and if successful, governments are forced to cough up millions, even billions, in compensation. There have been hundreds of cases against governments whose decisions to safeguard important public protections have been challenged. For example, Cargill sued Mexico when it first introduced a tax on sugary drinks, Ethyl sued Canada over a ban on the chemical MMT in petrol, which is suspected of causing nerve damage and Lone Pine sued Quebec when it introduced a fracking moratorium.
The impacts of trade deals are so far-reaching, they cannot be negotiated in secret. And yet, the government can hold secret talks with other governments with no transparency and no accountability. And our parliament has no powers to mandate, scrutinise and vote on trade deals. So, campaigners called for the government to immediately release the documents, dubbed the ‘Trump Trade Files’, relating to the six rounds of informal trade talks between the UK and US so that voters can see exactly what the government is planning for post-Brexit trade.
The threats of a US-UK trade deal are so grave because of the potential to slash our protections, regulations and safeguards in every aspect of our lives. And a Johnson-led government would be more than willing to sign these away to move one step closer to a highly privatised, light-touch regulation economy that he has always wanted.
By Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigner at Global Justice Now.