The Independent | 10 December 2019
I helped negotiate a trade deal with the US – I know they will demand an NHS sell off
by Vince Cable
Behind the bluster in this general election about “getting Brexit done” is an ambitious long term agenda: not to “take back control” for a more independent Britain, but to realign our economy and our standards with the interests of American business and our politics towards the goals of the American right.
The mysteriously leaked document on the UK negotiating position with the Trump administration for a bilateral trade deal may or may not have been laundered, as alleged, by the Russian secret service. We shall probably never know. But the leak sounds pretty plausible to me from my experience of working in government for the UK on a prospective trade and investment agreement between the EU and the USA called TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).
Initially, a partnership between the two biggest trading entities in the world seemed a very attractive and uncontroversial idea when promoted, enthusiastically, by the Obama administration and across the EU. Then the problems surfaced.
Once European commissioners were in the negotiating room, it turned out that there wasn’t a great deal on offer to the EU (including the UK). Most US federal tariffs are very small anyway, so removing these is no huge advantage. Meanwhile, the main barriers in the USA are often at state level and are not under the control of the federal government. Further, the vested interests of Wall Street stand in the way of better access for UK financial institutions.
Moreover the Americans had their own wish list, including the demand from US farmers to export to the EU without the impediment of EU food standards (beef hormones, chlorinated chicken etc). The Americans also wanted higher standards of legal protection from European governments’ policies than are currently available.
While we thought their concerns were more about Bulgaria than Britain, US demands for special courts – the so called “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) – proved controversial in the UK.
But crucially within the demand for full market access for US products there were questions about what this might mean for suppliers of European public services like the NHS. That is where the fear of selling off the NHS comes from. It means, in practice, opening up the UK’s pricing and access scheme for pharmaceuticals.
Under pressure from a vigorous NGO campaign in Germany and the UK, the EU negotiator, Cecilia Malmström, specifically exempted public services from the negotiations. To coin a phrase, she “took the NHS off the table”. It then became increasingly clear that the prospective deal wasn’t worth the candle to either side, and the negotiations petered out.
Two big things have happened since: Brexit and Trump. The folly of Brexit is what necessitates dealings with this president. A Johnson administration would be desperate for a trade deal with the USA to justify tearing up the common trade policy – the customs union – which we have with the EU.
But the USA is not much bothered about an agreement with the UK. The UK would have much less bargaining power having left the EU anyway, and the prime minister’s desperation erodes it further. Yet the amount of benefit to UK exporters would have to be very large indeed to compensate for the loss of access to the EU single market (the EU currently accounts for 45% of UK exports and the US just under 20%). A few token concessions and tariff cuts don’t begin to measure up.
And the UK would be negotiating with a man who claims he has mastered the art of the deal and holds most of the negotiating cards, insisting that “everything is on the table”. In Trump’s world view, Britain is one of those “bad” countries “ripping off America” by running a trade surplus with the USA: not a good starting point for seeking concessions from them. In return for a signature on a piece of paper which Boris Johnson can wave to Tory acclaim, Trump would demand a high price.
We do not know exactly what the price would be but can plausibly guess: acceptance of US food standards, excluding Huawei from the 5G network, dropping proposals to tax US companies like Google and Amazon, aligning more closely with US positions on climate change, and getting rid of whatever regulations exist to protect public services like the NHS which Trump believes is unfairly exploiting US companies’ medical research.
Hiding behind the technicalities would be a clear objective to make the UK a subordinate part of a system of US standards.
Government ministers can swear blind that they will go nowhere near such an agreement but they may have no choice. Trump would simply say, “sign or no deal”. It isn’t necessary to be a longstanding critic of American imperialism like Mr Corbyn to worry about where a trade deal with the USA might lead. It would be heavily one-sided and of little or no net benefit.
But, unlike the EU in the TTIP negotiations, the UK wouldn’t be able to walk away. And we would inevitably be pulled closer into the orbit of the American Republican right where so many Brexiters have their spiritual home. Mr Gove and Mr Farage have already been preparing the ground.
It is tempting to believe and to hope that the worst won’t happen. Trump will be impeached or defeated. A bad deal will be stopped in parliament or in the US Congress. But this week we must do more than hope. Voters can stop the threat at source by preventing Johnson winning a majority on Thursday. Only then will we obtain a Final Say referendum on the bad Brexit deal, with the chance to remain and to stand up to Trump with our European partners.
That is why I am out campaigning for Liberal Democrat gains where possible – Esher and Walton, Wokingham and Wimbledon to name just a few – and supporting tactical voting for Remain where necessary.