Parliament was asleep at the wheel on CETA. It can’t be allowed to happen again

28 June 2018

Few people noticed but parliament just made a big mistake on trade. On Tuesday, MPs passed a motion in support of CETA – the EU-Canada trade agreement.

This wouldn’t be so bad if CETA were actually primarily about making it cheaper to swap Scotch whisky for Canadian maple syrup.  But CETA isn’t really about trade (i.e. getting rid of tariffs and quotas) it’s about handing over huge power to multinational corporations at the expense of all of us.

CETA includes the infamous ‘corporate courts’ system that allows foreign companies to sue the UK government for making policy that might impact their profits. Campaigners have warned that CETA could allow US pharmaceutical giants with subsidiaries in Canada to threaten the NHS with lawsuits if a future government reverses privatisation. Cases in other countries include Canada getting sued for declaring a moratorium on fracking and Germany for introducing environmental regulations for a coal power station.

CETA also threatens public services by locking in current levels of privatisation via so-called ‘standstill’ and ‘ratchet’ clauses and takes power away from governments by committing future regulations to be “as simple as possible” and not “unduly complicate or delay” the activities of corporations. This could seriously hinder future governments from improving environmental or safety laws.

But most MPs didn’t seem to want to engage with any of this annoying detail. Indeed, the quality of some of the debate was very low. A lot of it boiled down to MPs saying trade is good and therefore CETA must also be good. The shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner did argue against this false logic but didn’t actually back his words up with action – he was forced to whip Labour MPs into abstaining rather than voting against by the prospect of a Heathrow-sized rebellion.

The final result was an overwhelming 315 for and just 36 against. Given the damage this could cause the UK (and Canada for that matter) it is a terrible abdication of responsibility by MPs.

A bit of a charade

But depressing though this is, the most important thing to remember is that this whole debate and vote was a bit of charade. Normally, trade deals don’t get debated in parliament at all. In our current system, trade deals are approved by the government with almost zero parliamentary oversight. All the government has to do to ratify a trade agreement is give parliament 21 sitting days to pass a motion to reject it. Even if it does, it doesn’t actually stop the trade deal, it only delays it for another 21 days.

In truth, there is no democratic oversight over trade policy in the UK. Very few other countries in the developed world have a system as undemocratic as this. The US has a lengthy process that involves consulting 28 advisory committees and multiple votes in Congress. Trade agreements (if deemed to be ‘mixed agreements’ that impinge on national competencies) must also be approved by national parliaments across most of the EU, despite these countries not having independent trade policies. None of these systems are perfect. Indeed, the US system, for example, often gives corporate lobbyists too much influence. But the UK stands almost alone in treating its own legislature as an irrelevance when it comes to approving trade agreements.

The sad truth is that CETA was probably only put to the vote by the trade secretary, Liam Fox, because he was sure he could win. If he were less sure of the outcome, you can be sure that he would be very tempted to make full use of his power to ignore parliament to seal the deal.

And that is the rub. In a few weeks the Trade Bill will come back to the House of Commons. Hopefully MPs will be paying a little bit more attention than they did over CETA. Passing Amendment NC3 tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas would ensure that they get a say on all future trade agreements. But if they don’t back NC3 and vote to pass the Trade Bill unamended, they should probably at least try to enjoy it. Because it could be the last time they get to vote on trade policy at all.

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