For the past three years, War on Want has been proud to be at the forefront of one of the biggest social movements we’ve seen in Europe for a generation. That movement came together and grew with one intention: to stop the secretly negotiated EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Many of us campaigning against TTIP – and its ‘evil twin’ Canada deal, CETA – recognised it as a plan for the corporate takeover of our democracy, with human rights, jobs and environmental protection sacrificed on the altar of big business profit.
"We must be under no illusions: in the EU, the UK was the most neoliberal country in an avowedly neoliberal bloc, and this showed through in the UK’s positions on TTIP."
TTIP and CETA are undiluted neoliberalism imposed from above on the people of Europe. But, crucially, they are also a perfect copy of the policies that the EU has long imposed on other countries through unfair trade deals.
Now the UK has voted to leave the EU, we have escaped being party to the perils of any future TTIP agreement as an EU member state. We are, however, still dangerously exposed to the threat of CETA, which is set to be ratified before the UK leaves the EU.
For the first time in 40 years, trade policy will return to being a function of the UK government. Mindful of the lessons we have learned from TTIP, we must seize the opportunity to build a positive trade and investment agenda for the UK and the world.
We must ensure that any future UK trade policy is based on principles of public benefit not private profit, and that it is achieved through democratic control.
We can create trade policies that focus on the redistribution of the fruits of globalisation, the realisation of human rights and protection of the environment.
Not just Swiss v Turkish
Once the UK triggers Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, we are set for an intense period of negotiation to determine the nature of our exit from the EU and with it the boundaries of our future relationship with the rest of Europe, including around trade and investment.
But framing the debate about our economic future only in terms of what settlement we negotiate with the EU is illusory. The future prosperity of the many – both here and overseas - goes far beyond discussions over whether or not to adopt a ‘Norwegian’, ‘Turkish’ or ‘Swiss’ model of engagement with the EU.
As ever, the elite will be insulated from an economic downturn and accompanying austerity package designed to hit the poorest hardest. This is a result of politics, not economics. As War on Want has said for many years: poverty is political.
The destruction of banking regulations, crackdowns on trade union and migrants’ rights and the privatisation of public services are all policies designed to dispossess the poorest in order to enrich the wealthiest. They are also all policies firmly embedded in the new generation of neoliberal trade deals.
Avoiding ‘TTIP on steroids’
Before the Brexit vote we heard the warning that any new trade deals negotiated by the UK government could resemble ‘TTIP on steroids’.
This is a valid fear. We must be under no illusions: in the EU, the UK was the most neoliberal country in an avowedly neoliberal bloc, and this showed through in the UK’s positions on TTIP.
The UK government opposed any reforms being made to the ‘corporate court’ mechanism in TTIP and CETA, despite research it commissioned showing the negative impacts on the UK. It ensured UK MPs could not read the secret texts of the deal when it could have granted them access. It has led the charge for financial deregulation to be included in TTIP.
"As War on Want has said for many years: poverty is political."
It doesn’t stop there. The UK chose to include the NHS in TTIP when it could have excluded it, and the government then refused to release legal advice it received on threats to the NHS from the deal. And in spite of David Cameron’s “greenest ever government” claims, the UK teamed up with Canada, the US Trade Representative, BP and Shell to demolish rules that would have prevented high-polluting forms of oil from entering Europe – with profound implications for climate change and the lives of millions of people in the global South.
In all these actions, the UK had a willing partner in the European Commission, an institution captured by big business lobbying, dismissive of public opinion and disdainful of the need of transparency. And it is with the European Commission that the UK government will negotiate the terms of an EU exit, plus any new trade and investment treaty.
Trade justice, home and away
As commentator George Monbiot writes: “If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power – of insisting that companies that operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp?”
It is all this and more. In addition to ensuring that we in the UK are not locked in to permanent austerity, we must also ensure that we stop forcing this agenda on the people of the global South.
Trade policies like those in TTIP are used by big business to avoid taxes in the poorest countries, to force the plundering of natural resources, and to ensure governments are prohibited from using policies that would help them industrialise in order to escape the ‘free trade’ trap.
Instead of trade producing poverty, inequality and injustice, we can work with people around the world for trade justice, so that countries are free to use trade policies that create jobs, build public services and enable industrialisation.
Instead of trade condemning Southern farmers to destitution or death, or forcing garment workers to face insecure and dangerous working conditions, we can push for trade to champion food sovereignty and realise workers’ rights at home and abroad.
And instead of our government teaming up with Big Oil to boost its profits at the expense of runaway climate change, we can make trade work for climate justice and avert a catastrophe predicted to cost millions of lives over the coming decades.
Time to organise
Under TTIP, we witnessed big business and bureaucrats team up to demolish the NHS and abandon rules built to protect the world from financial crises and climate catastrophe – all under the auspices of trade and investment policy.
We can and must build a radically different trade agenda that serves ordinary working people in the UK and the wider world.
Vested interests and ideologues will seek to create TTIP anew, but we already have an engaged movement aware of the threat of corporate-authored, secret trade deals.
Now is the time for this movement to organise for trade justice.