The vacuum over post-Brexit trade is bringing together strange bedfellows


17 May 2018

Campaign organisations came together with trade unions and business confederations last week to propose a new framework for the UK's trade governance model. It is a sign of the times that such organisations are launching this joint initiative.

We need look no further than the TTIP campaign to see that campaigners and business groups don't often find themselves on the same side of the debate when it comes to trade. But the Brexit vote has seen many old certainties challenged. On 10 May an informal coalition including the Trade Justice Movement, the International Chambers of Commerce, the TUC and other business groups and trade unions came together to propose a framework for UK policy that we hope will steer trade in the direction of equitable outcomes for all.

What is astounding about this is that, ten months before we head into the transition period, we need to write the government’s trade policy for them. The only indication we have of the direction of travel is the excrutiatingly weak Trade Bill, which says nothing about democratic processes for developing the UK’s new trade policy. Not only that, the government is already ignoring the role of parliament by going ahead both with informal, secretive trade talks with a range of partners, and the establishment of a Trade Remedies Authority, which was only supposed to happen after the Bill came into law.

Existing UK mechanisms for public and parliamentary scrutiny of trade policy are currently woefully inadequate. The government decides when and with whom it will start negotiations, what the priorities will be and can conclude and sign deals with no input from parliament. There is no requirement to consult the public and no role for parliament until after the deal is signed. At the end of the process parliament is asked to ratify the deal in a procedure that dates from the 1920s (codified in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010). Parliament can decide to debate ratification but there is a significant dose of luck required to be able to table a debate in the short window allowed by the procedure, and even if parliament passes a motion against ratification, there is no limit on the number of times the government can bring the deal back for discussion. In effect, MPs have no right to say no to a deal.

A presumption of transparency

The framework launched on the 10 May aims to establish a robust, modern system to ensure decisions about trade policy are made in an inclusive and transparent way. It would require government to consult with all stakeholders at all stages of the process, including civil society, unions, business and devolved administrations. It would ensure that there was a presumption of transparency in trade negotiations so that documents were available for scrutiny by the public and politicians. Parliament would vote both on a mandate for any trade deal (which allows negotiations to start) and on the final deal, as well as being fully consulted throughout negotiations.

This should be common sense, a normal part of a well-functioning democracy, because trade impacts on almost all aspects of everyday life. The risk of maintaining the status quo is that trade deals are poorly designed, with potential negative consequences for local economies, labour rights and environmental protections in the UK and in partner countries. Ensuring proper engagement from a range of stakeholders will get us closer to trade that works for everyone. But the Government is not listening – not to campaigners, not to unions, not even to business groups. We hope that by standing together, we can start to get their attention.

Ruth Bergan is co-ordinator of the Trade Justice Movement.

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