The prospect of a free trade agreement between the UK and the US raises the possibility that consumer, employee and environmental protections will be seen as inconveniences that can be reduced rather than levelled between the two partners.
When it comes to trade, the potential for eroding standards has always existed. This is not a new concern but one that can be mitigated. If we look back at the now seemingly defunct TTIP agreement we can see what might lie ahead for the UK. With TTIP wesaw a surge of positive predictions of such an agreement’s impact and not without good reason. After all, the EU and US enjoy one of the closest economic partnerships in the world and certainly the largest. But we also saw a lot of opposition, especially from activists and consumer organisation, but also from some governments.
If you look at the US/EU relationship in terms of bilateral trade, the picture is pretty clear. More than €2bn a day pass between the EU and US. According to the Office of the US Trade Representative, transatlantic investment is directly responsible for around 6.8 million jobs. It is a relationship that has a broad impact. Not only does it help to produce economic prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic but also in dozens of other trading partners around the world.
The UK/US relationship is smaller, but no less significant. The US is the UK’s second largest trading partner after the EU. If you take the EU countries individually, it is the second largest trading partner after Germany. Yet there are barriers to UK/US trade that will exist even once the UK has left the EU. A new trade agreement, will seek to address those.
It is hard to argue that any measures that might make this partnership more efficient, or remove barriers to competition would not be a good thing. Of course, as with any relationship in which both sides are competing, the positive aspects come with a few negatives. Disagreements and tariffs may be minor but they do pose a barrier to access for both UK and US businesses. Current subsidies and state support ensure that in some areas competition is less than ideal, or even impossible.
And while it is probably true that some of these issues are protectionist in some way or intended to protect US industries, many of them are not. Limitations and barriers to competition when it comes to the export of agricultural products are a case in point, some are clearly intended to protect and subsidise producers, the UK approach to agricultural subsidy will then likely have an impact on a US/UK deal. Others like limitations on the use of genetically modified organisms entering the food chain and concerns about intellectual property reflect more serious concerns about accessibility, technology and safety.
The differences between the EU and the US may be starker than the likely UK position, but these differences on everything from agricultural policy, chemical safety regulations, data protection, intellectual property and many more – could still become battlegrounds. This was acknowledged with regard to US/EU trade when the International Trade Committee warned the European Trade Commissioner that hard bargaining would be needed to close a deal acceptable to the European Union public. And it is the public that need to be convinced. The UK will, especially after potentially fractious Brexit negotiations, need to be able to gain public support in it’s dealings with the US. That means listening to the views of civil society as well as businesses across the UK.
When it comes to trade, it is the benefit of citizens that must take precedence, both in terms of jobs and economic well being, and with regard to consumer and employee protections and civil liberties. It would be all too easy for the terms of any agreement to be directed by corporate interest. After all, business has an undeniable and large stake in trade issues. That would raise the possibility that consumer, employee and environmental protections being seen as inconveniences and be reduced rather than levelled between the two partners. It’s not just about goods either, services and intellectual property issues will also be key, it would be possible for Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) or the Stop Online Piracy Act like provisions to be tagged on at the behest of lobbyists and corporate sponsors.
It might even be hard for the UK to object to what many might see as inconsequential or minor issues in particular areas when there is an entire trade deal, an agreement that has an impact on billions of pounds and dollars, at stake. Those of us who want to see a healthy relationship between the US and UK, who want to see unnecessary barriers reduced, have a responsibility to ensure that we look carefully at any proposals. We must act decisively when there are problems, however small they may appear, if they threaten the progress the UK intends to make over the coming decade.
Above all it is vital that any negotiations are open, transparent and that those involved in them are accountable. That is not too much to ask and it is certainly achievable. We must of course stand against anything that erodes the protections that have been so hard fought and instead aim to extend those protections to the citizens in the countries we partner with. Any future negotiations, indeed a potential future US/UK trade deal represents a massive opportunity in economic terms and in cementing real public involvement in our future prosperity, something to be grasped with both hands.