2017 election result puts trade future in doubt

This article was published on
 | News and analysis
Thousands take to the streets against CETA and TTIP across Europe. Protestors hold a huge banner that reads "Hands off democracy #noTTIP". Photo: Global Justice Now

In the past week we have seen seismic changes in UK politics. For our campaigning for trade justice, these changes may have a significant impact – but one which must not and will not affect the core principles and values we champion.

We now find ourselves in a position of uncertainty. For the past year, it has been assumed by many that the UK would no longer be an EU member state; we would leave the ‘single market’ and ‘customs union’, and we would pursue UK trade deals with the rest of the world. While this reality remains likely in the long-term, there is a real possibility that in the short-term we will remain subject to EU trade deals under an ‘interim arrangement’ before a future change after Brexit.

In either one of these situations, our trade justice principles will remain at the forefront of our work: if remaining attached to the EU trade regime invokes rules which threaten the NHS and any of our public services, we must demand they are changed; if we are party to a trade deal that Southern countries oppose because it stops them from choosing policies they know will benefit their citizens, we must join them in rejecting it; and if and when we pursue our own trade deals – including with the EU – we must ensure that we never again negotiate under the veil of absolute secrecy we have become accustomed to.

War on Want recognised that if it the UK pursued its own trade deals, under a progressive government there was a real possibility the UK could negotiate progressive trade deals to the benefit of people in the global North and South; we believed that we stood a better chance of ensuring trade justice, the clarion call of social movements the world over.

But in the past year, we witnessed our former government use our trade agenda to pay homage to corporations and human rights abusers around the world: we saw our elected officials show deference to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the murderous Duterte regime in the Philippines; we witnessed our representatives celebrate the prospect of deregulating big banks and refuse to rule out sacrificing the NHS to a trade deal with the USA; and we looked on with disgust as our own officials spoke fearfully of an “Empire 2.0” and we continued to sell weapons to the majority of countries on our own human rights watchlist.

To date, EU trade deals, negotiated by the anti-democratic European Commission, have highlighted the very worst of “free trade imperialism” imposed on Southern people: they have prevented Southern countries from choosing their own economic development policies, and forced the abandoning of progressive legislation on everything from tax evasion to protecting natural resources and the environment.

Through hated EU-US business deal TTIP, we saw a continuation and expansion of this agenda – but, crucially, we also saw this trade agenda used to impose permanent austerity on the people of the global North. In addition to enforcing deregulation of European social and environmental rules, the privatisation of public services and the introduction of ISDS corporate courts to stop progressive government action in its tracks, TTIP was designed to set a pro-corporate template for the whole world to follow, whether they wanted to or not.

Hot-on-the-heels of TTIP came CETA – the EU-Canada deal negotiated in absolute secrecy, led by “counterfeit” progressives like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and celebrated as the alternative to Donald Trump’s trade agenda.

But neither we nor the people of Europe fell for this lie: we know that our future can and must lie in an alternative agenda that is neither Trudeau’s unabashed neoliberalism dressed up with the see-through PR trappings of ‘change’, nor Trump’s extreme right-wing neoliberalism, adorned with lies and sham messages of protecting the poorest.

We saw CETA used to rebrand ISDS corporate courts, ensure the arrival - for the very first time – of high polluting shale oil in Europe while the lives of millions in the global South depend on abandoning our fossil fuel fixation and, in a dire warning for potential Brexit trade deals, we saw our own government trample on parliamentary democracy to force CETA through without any parliamentary debate.

As we warned, CETA will increase inequality across Europe, strengthening the hand of the fascist far right at a time when we must unite in opposing an agenda of structural racism and the oppression of the most marginalised in our societies.

But now we find ourselves in uncharted territory: we may end up continuing to be subject to EU trade deals or negotiating our own trade deals with the rest of the world.

Both of these situations present significant risks and opportunities. But in either situation we must adhere to our trade justice principles: our most cherished principles remain the same, and we will not abandon them, nor will we shirk from campaigning for them - regardless of any political dynamics.

Technocrats and policy experts will tell us that our salvation lies in one EU model or another. The ideologues of neoliberalism will tell us that, regardless of the situation, the discredited economic growth model is all we need.  

But we must continue to say to all that this notion of the ‘economy’ is false: it is political choices that ensure the rich stay rich, insulated from any economic change, while the poorest are blamed for their own poverty - and apportioned individual responsibility for changing a structurally imposed reality. As War on Want has long said: poverty is political.

We believe that our public services like the NHS must remain public; any changes to them must be subject to public debate rather than backroom deals in the dark with big business.

We believe that human rights and rules to protect society and the environment - many of which are the result of years of hard-fought activism and campaigning - must be celebrated and strengthened, not sacrificed on the altar of private profit.

And we believe that our governments, North and South, must not be hauled before secret corporate tribunals for daring to act in the public or environmental interest, whether in the cause of banning fracking, ensuring public health overrides the profit interests of tobacco companies or that the very poorest among us can afford water when economies collapse.

But against the backdrop of the very worst of corporate trade regimes, by coming together in our millions we have won inspirational victories in the past months and years: there is a growing international backlash against ISDS corporate courts as citizens in the South demand the rejection of this attack on democracy; people power has forced humiliating losses in the EU as, first, the rejection of the TTIP and CETA petition signed by millions across Europe was overturned, and then a court ruling ensured that ISDS corporate courts cannot be included in EU trade deals without approval from individual member states.

By Mark Dearn