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The government has certainly learned from the defeat of Transatlanic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the last attempt at a secret trade deal with the USA. They see any public debate on trade as a threat. That’s why Liam Fox is consulting big business while leaving parliament and the public in the dark. They’re betting that if we knew the truth, we wouldn’t stand for it.
This week, people from across the country are coming to demand trade democracy. If this government’s track record on trade deals is anything to go by, left to its own devices, it will sign away our public services. It will sign away the right to regulate, keeping the big banks in check and preventing another financial crash. And it will sign away our right to have our elected representatives writing the policies that shape our lives.
Last year’s Queen’s Speech promised an ‘independent trade policy’ after Brexit. But with elite interests crowding round the Trade Bill behind closed doors, it’s starting to look like the only people these negotiations will be independent of are the British people and our elected representatives.
Secret talks with the USA on a new deal are already under way, with parliament unceremoniously elbowed out of the way and unable to know, let alone set limits on what those talks might cover – not even to protect the NHS. Hundreds of thousands of people have already lobbied their MPs to demand trade democracy. Thanks to them, over 150 MPs have signed Early Day Motions calling for parliament to have scrutiny over trade deals but so far the government has sidestepped parliamentary scrutiny every single step of the way.
Speaking on the revelation that US-UK talks will be kept secret for four year after they finish, Professor Heather Brooke, a freedom of information expert at City University, warns: “The freedom of information law sets a default for openness but with these documents, the government instead set the default at ‘secret’ and only in a few exceptions will the public get a look.”
This makes sense from the government’s point of view because it was public scrutiny and mass protest that took its trade agenda down last time. War on Want came together with people across the UK and EU to build a movement that took TTIP from an obscure acronym to a lightning rod of resistance. Leading voices on labour rights, banking regulations, food safety, the environment and democracy all found a common enemy and unmasked it for the public.
Politicians were already being forced to distance themselves from the toxic deal when in May 2016 the full text was leaked. The leaks revealed plans to give US corporations unprecedented powers to circumvent health and safety regulations and introduce a one-way corporate justice system that would allow them to sue our government whenever public interest got in the way of profit.
Despite government assurances that the present Trade Bill will just transfer existing trade arrangements from EU to UK agreements, the reality is that most will have to be altered or entirely re-written: something Liam Fox intends to do behind closed doors. TTIP may be dead but its spirit is still haunting Westminster.
Widespread concerns around what talks mean for food safety standards and the NHS reflect a growing awareness that corporate influence is compromising the public interest. More than compromising though, these interests are in direct conflict. We need higher wages, protected public services and a government that is accountable to us. The corporate lobbyists want what they always want: a deal that will deregulate the financial sector, create a market for public services and drive down wages to boost their profits.
In today’s world, trade deals affect almost every area of our lives from accessing public services and essential medicines to digital rights. Meaningful public engagement and parliamentary oversight will be essential to ensure any new deal works for all of us, not just an elite few. That’s what we mean when we call for trade democracy.
Like history books, trade deals reflect the interests of their authors. For a decade since the financial crash, most people have been struggling to make ends meet in Austerity Britain while the rich have kept their bailouts and their bonuses. If there’s one thing we must learn from that experience, it’s not to let the 1% write our futures for us. We need trade democracy now. The stakes could not be higher.