Why trade deals are a threat
Trade has always been part of society and in itself it could be a good thing. But nowadays trade deals have little to do with actual trade – they aren’t simply about selling more “stuff” to other countries’ . Too often they are about giving huge new powers to big business, affecting every aspect of our society from the NHS to online privacy, from environmental protection to food standards.
From the Philippines to Saudi Arabia to the United States, British government ministers are flying around the world to talk trade deals. Though big business lobbyists may get access to these discussions, they take place in the dark, with no accountability to the public or parliament.
We are campaigning on trade because these deals affect every aspect of our society and we can’t let the government sign away our rights and protections behind closed doors.
Trade deals can be used to prevent efforts to restore the environment and combat climate change. If governments introduce regulations or standards to, for instance, promote the use of renewable energy and limit the use of dirty fossil fuels, or to require environmental impact assessments, or to ban pollutants – they can all be challenged as barriers to trade. This risks the sustainable future of our planet for everyone.
Instead, trade deals should explicitly recognise that environmental standards and climate commitments take precedence over trade rules.
Increasingly trade deals push countries to open up markets in public services, entrenching privatisation. Once this is done, trade rules can prevent governments from ever taking back control of public services in the public interest.
This is a threat to public services here in the UK, where big corporations would love to get their hands on more of the NHS or increase the privatisation of education. It can be even more of a threat for developing countries, who may be prevented from ever establishing strong public services.
Instead, public services should be excluded from trade deals.
As well as the threat to the NHS and healthcare services in other countries, trade rules also limit access to medicines. Trade deals have been used to impose stringent patent requirements for medicines, keeping prices out of reach of the majority of people across the world for longer, just so that pharmaceutical giants can make more money. New trade deals are likely to try and stretch this even further, undermining the production of affordable non-branded medicines that are vital for most people in developing countries.
Instead, patents rules should not be part of trade deals. And public policy goals such as healthcare must have priority over trade rules in reality, not just lip service.
Trade deals threaten to strip away regulations on pesticide, antibiotic and hormone use in farming. We need to move away from a high-intensity, high-chemical, low-animal welfare approach to farming, toward an agro-ecological approach that supports jobs, health and the planet, yet trade rules can prevent this.
Trade also treats food like any other commodity, rather than a basic right, and undermines the livelihoods of small-scale farmers across the world.
Instead, trade deals should allow governments the policy space to support small-scale farmers and the right to food.
Modern trade deals include ‘corporate courts’ which let foreign corporations sue governments for passing regulations that could affect corporate profits. This is done through an international arbitration process that completely bypasses our own national justice system. In practice, this means corporations can sue governments for doing almost anything they don’t like – environmental protection, regulating finance, renationalising public services, anti-smoking policies – you name it.
Instead, corporate courts should be abandoned, and disputes resolved within national legal systems.
What you can do
We need to open up the process and allow scrutiny and democracy to improve the way trade deals work.
Find out more
Find out more about the toxic trade deals that threaten our society and the campaign against them:
 This may be called investor state dispute settlement (ISDS), Investment Court System (ICS) or a proposed Multilateral Investment Court (MIC).