Liam Fox’s Pacific plan is toxic. Post-Brexit trade policies need proper scrutiny

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The Guardian | 4 January 2018

Liam Fox’s Pacific plan is toxic. Post-Brexit trade policies need proper scrutiny

by Nick Dearden

Brexit can truly work miracles. Now it is suggested that it could even turn us into a Pacific nation. The outlandish suggestion from the Department for International Trade is that Britain could join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sister deal to the now infamous TTIP between the US and EU.

We can leave aside that Britain is nowhere near the Pacific, and that TPP is so toxic that its main proponent, the US, has now pulled out. Beneath the bluster and the desperation of the British government, there is a dangerous agenda – and one MPs may have no power to stop.

Assuming a deal is reached by other partners – which include Australia, Japan, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam – what would the TPP actually mean for Britain?

Similar to TTIP, the TPP is a deal dreamed up by big business, and has much less to do with trade, as most people conceive it, than with making life more profitable for transnational corporations. That means standardising (read: lowering) regulations. You don’t want hormone-fed, steroid-filled and chlorine-washed meat in your market? Well sorry, that’s a “trade barrier” and the TPP will rid you of it.

The same “market knows best” attitude applies to finance, where TPP would allow big financial players to challenge government rules to regulate banks or clamp down on risky financial products. And it would hand the tech giants like Google and Amazon much greater power to use – and abuse – your data.

TPP would limit dozens of powers which governments use to protect citizens and their environment, and push the balance further in favour of big business. It would extend the monopoly rights of big pharmaceutical corporations, cutting off the citizens of poorer countries from affordable life-saving drugs, while also making it harder for the NHS to negotiate cheaper prices for medicines. It would gut the ability of local government to use taxes to stimulate local farming and the local economy. The 5,000-page deal doesn’t even mention the words “climate change” but would make it harder for governments to introduce environmentally friendly policies.

Right at the centre of the TPP – guaranteeing all of business benefits – is the toxic “corporate court” system, which gives transnational corporations and superrich investors a special arbitration system to sue governments when they enact any policy that the investor doesn’t like. Putting cigarettes in plain packaging, banning dangerous chemicals, raising the minimum wage, stopping toxic power plants being built – anything that might affect big business’s bottom line can lead to a claim being lodged.

No wonder that workers and campaigners in the US hated it. Trump may have withdrawn, but he simply jumped on a bandwagon. It was unions, environmentalists and progressive politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who really stopped TPP for the US.

The remnant of TPP is still alive, however. So why would Liam Fox court such controversy by floating the idea that he wants to join it? Well, for one thing he generally supports the big business agenda – and is openly backing international rules that would give more power to big drugs and tech companies. We know Fox has no problem with chlorinated chicken and that he believes the sole role of the government is to make consumables cheaper for the customers.

We also know that Fox and his hard Brexit friends loathe the EU’s standards and regulations. Many of us already regard these standards as pandering to the interests of the corporations that lobby for them. But for people like Fox, they are far too high. The closer we step towards other trade blocs – the US and Pacific bloc in particular – the further we get from Europe. For Fox, deals such as TPP represent a long-term ambition to fundamentally reorient the UK away from the EU and towards a glorious low-regulation, “free market” future.

So could Fox actually get his way? Here’s something else that works in Fox’s favour – the total lack of scrutiny and accountability over trade policy. Next week his trade bill will receive its second reading in the Commons. The bill gives Fox the ability to renegotiate the EU’s external trade treaties so that they still apply after Brexit. They also set a precedent for how future trade deals will be negotiated.

It is deeply troubling that this bill currently gives no rights to MPs or the public when it comes to trade policy. MPs have no right to know what negotiations are going on, or to set parameters for those negotiations, or to scrutinise, amend or stop a trade deal. They are essentially agreed under royal prerogative.

This contempt for parliamentary sovereignty means that Labour, Green, SNP and Plaid MPs will be backing motions against the bill on Tuesday. In the coming weeks they will attempt to amend it to give parliament and the public the right to have a democratic say over trade policy.

That MPs should have power over these sorts of wide-ranging trade deals is hardly controversial, whatever you think of TPP. That MPs currently have no part to play in trade policy is nothing short of scandalous. In fact, it will be one of history’s great ironies if those that genuinely wanted to return sovereignty to Britain actually find our elected representatives have less power over trade than their European colleagues.

Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now (formerly World Development Movement)

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source: The Guardian