As Brexit promises fade, no good options on the trade deal table

Nick Dearden on Johnson’s embrace of the ‘shock doctrine’

Boris Johnson is warning again of an ‘Australian’ relationship with the EU. To you and me that’s a disastrous no-deal Brexit. Even if he comes to a deal, and this is all more Johnson bluff, that deal will be far more distant a relationship than anything envisioned at the time of the EU referendum. For anyone who cares about protecting food standards, public services, or our rights online, there is no good option left on the table in these talks.

For Johnson’s cabinet, this all makes sense. Although there will be a period of intense crisis, compounded by coronavirus, they presumably see this as a price worth paying, even helpful, in accelerating big business’s control over ever more aspects of our lives. It’s what author Naomi Klein would surely deem a ‘shock doctrine’. Indeed, even free market mantra has been jettisoned in favour of Johnson embracing a type of industrial strategy which is really about US levels of ‘corporate welfare’.

But all is not lost, for the coalition beginning to coalesce against Johnson’s plans is growing. Farmers have been protesting Johnson’s plans for 18 months, scaring the hell out of Tory MPs in the shires, some of whom rebelled against Johnson repeatedly in the Agriculture Bill. Neither does Johnson’s ‘big business knows best’ approach go down any better among leave voters in the former ‘red wall’, who saw Brexit as an opportunity to increase their security and protection from the workings of the global economy.

In other words, as difficult as the situation looks, the US trade deal potentially provides us with a much better opportunity to throw a spanner in the works of Johnson’s post-Brexit plans than anything we’ve campaigned on in the last five years. It could help us break down the Brexit alliance which placed Johnson in Number 10, opening up a real debate about the future of Britain.

When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn held up pages of blacked-out trade documents on ITV’s general election debate last November, it was the culmination of years of work. My organisation first submitted freedom of information requests for those documents, which contain crucial details of what the UK government was preparing to negotiate with the United States, in 2017. Despite numerous appeals and a legal challenge, this essential record of the likely consequences of a US trade deal had remained entirely hidden. Now, finally, they were centre stage.

When the uncensored documents were subsequently leaked, it was easy to see why the government wanted to keep them secret – they confirmed many of our fears about their willingness to capitulate to the US corporate lobby. While much mud has subsequently been slung about the identity and motivations behind the leak (though with little actual evidence), the authenticity of the documents, and what they reveal, has never been disputed.

They showed that the US trade deal does indeed pose a fundamental threat to our food standards, public services, workers’ rights and consumer protections. For once, Donald Trump put it best when he stood next to a mortified Theresa May in June 2019 and said: “Look, I think everything with a trade deal is on the table. When you’re dealing in trade everything is on the table. So NHS or anything else, a lot more than that, but everything will be on the table, absolutely.”

Modern trade deals affect what sort of society we live in, promoting a model of free market economics, together with tools to discipline governments that step away from that model. A US trade deal is less about importing more American products than it is about importing the American economic and regulatory model. It is not about whether we trade with the US, but whether we capitulate to a set of policies that enshrine the power of the market and big business. A US trade deal is at the heart of what sort of country we become after Brexit.

While Boris Johnson is often referred to as a pragmatist, he has chosen to surround himself with a group of politicians devoted to the free market, deregulation and privatisation. Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab are firmly in this group. Like many on the right of the British establishment, they look to the United States for leadership, seeing the US as a model economy in which the market rules, big business can behave as it sees fit, and rich individuals are free from irritating ‘burdens’ like public healthcare and redistributive taxes. For such people, the referendum to leave the EU presented an opportunity to unleash a long‑cherished dream. A US trade deal provides one of the most important mechanisms for getting us there.

Under a US trade deal, food made to different standards would almost certainly be allowed onto British supermarket shelves. This means more genetically modified foods. It means chlorine-washed chicken (washing poultry in treatments such as chlorine dioxide to remove bacteria which has accumulated over the lifetime of these battery-farmed birds). It means serious overuse of antibiotics in food production, and the use of horrific chemicals in pig farming like ractopamine, banned in 160 countries, including Russia and China.


The NHS is most certainly ‘on the table’ in a US trade deal. But, as former shadow secretary of state for trade Barry Gardiner MP pointed out during the 2019 election, “the NHS is not a building you can simply sell”. The NHS will be threatened first because modern trade deals aim to liberalise services, for instance stripping away government attempts to treat foreign investors in those services ‘unfairly’. This mean locking things like the internal market into place in perpetuity.

It will also be threatened through intellectual property rules which give big pharmaceutical corporations monopoly powers over medicines, allowing them to dictate prices of vital treatments.

Corporate courts

The icing on the cake in many modern trade deals is the Investor‑State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, the formal name for ‘corporate courts’, which allows foreign investors to sue governments in special tribunals when they believe their ‘rights’ have been infringed. They were invented back in the 1950s, reflecting western countries’ suspicion of how their corporations would be treated in newly independent countries in the global south. But it’s really in the last 20 years that they have become a major problem.

The basis for cases has been expanded to an almost ludicrous degree by City law firms. A foreign investor today might claim pretty much any government action that damages their future profits is ‘unfair’ or ‘expropriation’, even though the rest of us might regard the measure as a reasonable response to the harm a corporation is causing.

How we can beat it

The Zapatistas’ rising in Chiapas inspired perhaps the most diverse and international movement we’ve ever seen, dubbed the anti‑ (or alter-) globalisation movement.

This movement secured its first major victory on the streets of Seattle, at a summit of the World Trade Organisation, the international body set up to develop global trade rules. During a festival‑style series of teach‑ins, protests and non‑violent direct actions, a broad coalition brought together environmentalists and animal rights campaigners with industrial workers. On the streets of Seattle, and in combination with obstruction from developing world delegates, the summit was brought to a standstill. It wouldn’t hold a successful meeting again for over a decade.

There were many other trade victories from which we can also learn, like the defeat of US-EU trade deal TTIP five years ago. A wide coalition has already been formed. On the day he was made Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice was booed by farmers when he mentioned the US trade deal. Even the right wing Mail on Sunday are running regular columns on the problems of a US trade deal.

There is every reason to hope that the US deal can be defeated if we build a sufficiently large and diverse movement. This defeat would be another setback for a global trade regime which urgently needs to be transformed. But what might that alternative economy look like?

The future of trade

Trade rules do not have to be a problem. After the Second World War, many countries came together to secure a more open trading regime, and while they did want to bring tariff levels down, their aim was to achieve full employment and economic development. Trade rules were more flexible, leaving large areas free for countries to design the best policies for their own development.

With climate change posing a threat to our whole world, radical reform is the only way forward. Liberalising deals like the US‑UK one must be rejected out of hand. We build the foundations of a very different economy if we are to avoid a retreat into xenophobia, the politics of bullying, and a collapse of any sort of international coordination. A return to 1990s-style globalisation is not an option. Only by constraining the power of capital can we turn things around.

The latter part of this article is taken from Nick Dearden’s book, Trade Secrets: the truth about the US trade deal and how we stop it, which also includes full referencing and is available for free here.

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