Campaigners criticise ‘lack of democracy’ in UK-US trade talks

As MPs get ready to debate a series of post-Brexit trade deals, campaigners are warning that the government has failed to implement a fully accountable framework for scrutinising the deals, stoking fears that changes such as the lowering of UK food standards could be made without democratic oversight.

Shipping containers
Shipping containers
Green World

Campaigners have criticised the government’s approach to negotiations over four post-Brexit trade deals, decrying what they see as a “woeful lack of democracy” in the process.

On Thursday (21 February), MPs are set to debate the trade deals in the House of Commons, which will likely result in the launch of formal negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, led by the Department for International Trade and its Secretary of State Liam Fox. The UK’s application to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which incorporates 11 Pacific nations in a far-reaching trade deal, is also expected to be launched.

The debate follows a government consultation on the deals, which provoked what is believed to be the biggest public response in history, with 600,000 individuals and organisations expressing concerns about the impact the deals could have on food standards, the NHS and the introduction of ‘corporate court’ systems, which could lead to the UK Government getting sued in secret tribunals by multinational companies.

Campaigners are warning that the government has failed to put into practice any framework for replacing the current scrutiny and accountability mechanisms that exist in the EU for dealing with trade deals, arguing that this hands the government very substantial powers to make sweeping social and economic changes outside of normal Parliamentary processes.

And such changes could have significant effects on UK standards and the way that services are provided. Donald Trump recently stated that the US and the UK had agreed “to move forward and preserve” the existing terms of the US-EU trade deal in relation to the £12.8 billion of trade that takes place between the UK and the US each year, with the two nations signing a Mutual Recognition Agreement last Thursday (14 February).

Formal negotiations for a new trade deal with the US are likely to see the US demand changes in the UK’s food standards, with US lobbyists recently calling for the US to negotiate dramatically reduced tariffs for goods entering the UK market, as well as to push for the UK to drop the ‘precautionary principle’ regarding produce and machinery.

Read more: Food and health standards after Brexit in danger

Campaigners are calling for a democratic framework for post-Brexit trade negotiations to be implemented, including:

  • Parliamentary approval of a mandate before negotiations start;

  • Transparency during negotiations;

  • A meaningful Parliamentary vote on the final deal; and

  • Broad-ranging impact assessments looking at social, economic, environmental, gender, development and regional effects.

Commenting on the approach to negotiations, Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now said: “This debate simply highlights the woeful lack of democracy governing Britain’s post-Brexit trade policy. Following a pretty meaningless public consultation, which nonetheless showed how concerned we all are about the government’s trade plans, the Secretary of State is expecting to simply start negotiating these deals in six weeks’ time. Neither Parliament nor the public are allowed to stop Liam Fox negotiating away our food standards or our public services. This must change before it’s too late.”

Jean Blaylock of War on Want added: “We know the Secretary of State has a lot riding on doing a deal with the US but we don’t know what he is prepared to offer to get it. Thursday’s debate may be the only chance to find out. But more than that, it may be the only chance for Parliament to have any say before an eventual deal is implemented. Trade officials can start negotiations, do the deal behind closed doors, finish and sign it, and Parliament isn’t even guaranteed a vote on the final deal.”