Jean Blaylock on Post-Brexit trade and the Australia trade deal: “What these trade deals are about is deregulation and corporate power.”

With the UK Government in a real rush to sign its first major post-Brexit trade deal, we caught up with Jean Blaylock, campaign and policy manager at Global Justice Now to ask her about the coming Australia-UK trade deal

According to its proponents currently in Government, Brexit was meant to open up global opportunities for the UK. Now, the Australia trade deal is the first major post-Brexit deal the UK Government is set to conclude. What can you tell us about it –  why should we be worried?

What’s made the news is a lot of concern around standards, particularly food and agriculture standards, because farmers, animal welfare campaigners, food campaigners generally are particularly concerned that because the UK Government is so desperate to agree a deal, any deal to prove the worth of Brexit, they will agree to almost anything. And one of the first things they’ll be willing to sacrifice is agriculture, farmers and food. And the Australian government  has a particular interest in hormone-treated beef – that’s the iconic issue, there’s higher use of pesticides, concerns about some other animal welfare issues, as well as concerns about encouraging increased trade in ultra processed foods. 

People also fear that by giving so much to Australia, the UK will set a precedent for future trade deals with the rest of the world.

Now, these are real concerns that affect real issues, and we should be worried about them.

It does go beyond that in a couple of ways, however.

This trade deal follows a more extreme model of a standard neoliberal trade deal that uses trade as a way of imposing a market-driven economy – so the type of trade deal currently being done states as its goal that the solution to almost every problem is to open things up more to the market, to rely on the market, to leave things up to the market. A lot of what trade deals do nowadays is to use trade rules as a relatively low profile way to ensure deregulation, to make sure that when people start talking about a more progressive agenda – Global Green New Deal, Healthcare for all, at that point someone will say ‘Well, it’s all very interesting what you’re talking about but unfortunately it’s against the trade rules’. And this trade deal, from what we can tell, falls very much in that pattern.

What about corporate courts? Is ISDS included in this trade deal?

Corporate courts are a mechanism that allows corporations to sue governments completely outside of national legal systems, in courts entirely tailored to their interests. They are ad-hoc tribunals completely reflecting the investors’ interest and not having to balance that against the public interest in any way. They have been used to challenge regulations on everything from public health, minimum wage levels, toxic chemicals in petrol etc.

Australia has had bad experience with this and Phillip Morris over plain packaging of cigarettes. But we have learned recently that ISDS is a live negotiation issue for this trade agreement – it is almost certainly going to be part of this deal. Because they insist on doing the whole negotiation in secret – even though they are not commercial negotiations, this is public policy making and yet it’s all secret – so we have not seen the text of the deal proposals. But a minister has confirmed this is something they are looking at as a live issue and is most likely going to go in the deal.

This is very worrying because we’re talking about the first new trade deal the UK is doing. Across the world governments have been accepting that the ISDS system is quite fundamentally unjust and broken. Some countries have been rejecting it, some have been trying to terminate existing ISDS deals, some – like New Zealand, are opposing it. The EU is trying to reform it, the US even is deciding not to have ISDS in its trade deals. Yet the UK is going in exactly the opposite direction. It’s the UK that is actually driving this!

What would be the impact of ISDS on the UK’s climate commitments?

It’s always been the case that around half of ISDS cases have had to do with environmental regulations – mining, oil drilling, impact assessments etc. But a trend that is increasing is companies using ISDS directly to challenge climate action. We’ve seen a company challenged a moratorium on fracking in Canada, in the UK a company is currently bringing an ISDS case on fracking. Two energy companies are suing the Netherlands over the phasing out of coal. Again, these cases are incredibly secretive. But these two companies in the Dutch case are doing it very openly – they are asking to be paid twice essentially. First, they made a profit from being able to use coal way beyond the point at which the scientific consensus told us it was damaging. When finally the government catches up, they want a payout a second time for having polluted. And this is done so publicly which implies they are aiming for a chilling effect on other countries. I’m talking about other countries that may have been looking at introducing similar legislation at the same time – which is what happened with Australia and plain packaging for cigarettes. And all these other countries who were at the time considering similar moves would wait to see what  the outcome of that case would be. Unfortunately, research has shown us that for developing countries that chilling effect is holding beyond the length of these cases. They know themselves to be more vulnerable. Recently Pakistan was slapped with a 6 bn case by a mining company. For a country like that it wipes out an entire IMF fund they’ve just received. So it makes governments cautious and we can’t afford that. We can’t afford that delay. We certainly can’t afford for many global south countries to think it’s too risky to take action against fossil fuel.

What scrutiny is there for this trade deal – or any of them? What are the timelines and how can we mobilise?

We are not operating in ideal circumstances here. For the last 4 years we’ve been pushing in the trade bill process through Parliament for a modern, decent scrutiny process of a trade deal. Despite us winning the moral case for it, however, the Government refused to guarantee Parliament a vote on trade deals. 

There is a lot of concern within Parliament about transparency – we got confirmation on the ISDS element of the trade deal with Australia from the SNP trade spokesperson who asked the question about it, Emily Thornberry has recently been speaking out against the damage of ISDS and other elements of the government’s trade approach. We are definitely trying to mobilise public pressure around this too – we’ve been writing about it in the media, letters have been sent to MPs. 

This is where we may have some leverage just in terms of the government’s desperation to get a trade deal quickly. If there’s enough controversy around ISDS, they could potentially decide to exclude it just to get it through more easily.

We don’t have much time though. I fear they may sign the deal in principle next week. They want a photo opp at the G7 summit. If not by next week, it will be soon. That won’t be the end of negotiations and there will be technical discussions past the signing so we probably have until autumn. 

In autumn, we are left with the CRAG mechanism where international treaties are presented to parliament for ratification within 21 days. There is no guarantee there will be a vote at that point but one thing we’ve secured is a verbal assurance (Grimstone rule) that if Parliament asks for a debate, the Government will provide time for it. That will be rushed of course, and trade deals are massive documents to scrutinise so it will be a lot of pressure.

The trade committee in Parliament will get sight of the text 10 days before the rest of Parliament so hopefully we’ll be able to mobilise within parliament circles. But actually the best chance to remove ISDS is if we act and mobilise public pressure earlier in the process.

Is this what we’re going to see from now on – the promise of a global Britain? Is this the blueprint for trade negotiations in future?

For all the talk of a new approach, nothing we’ve seen so far suggests what the UK is doing is that much different from the standard ways of doing it. In fact, it’s much easier for them to use the existing template.

But that sense of opportunity – well, a deal, even with the US will make very little difference in actual effect – growth, the economy and GDP it will be in the margins of a rounding error. A deal with Australia even more so – a fraction of a percent over 15 years. The rhetoric of these trade deals is that they’re about growth, jobs and the economy. That doesn’t correspond to reality. What they are about in reality is deregulation and corporate power. These trade deals will give more impunity and more scope for international corporations and make it easier to keep that extreme free market approach. They won’t actually create any meaningful positive impact. The Department of Trade is trying to humanise these agreements by saying things like, the Trade deal with Japan will help you buy soy sauce, except it won’t actually change anything in your ability to buy or export soy sauce. And actually, has this even been a problem for you so far? Buying soy sauce?

They are not about sustainable development or sustainable growth. They are definitely not about any jobs, let alone decent jobs – any jobs are likely to be precarious and temporary exploitative jobs. They are mainly about a backdoor way of ensuring deregulation and corporate control.

To end on a positive note, we do have a strong movement mobilised against this and it is a truly global internationalist movement – and it has always been led by groups in the global south. So we need to do this in solidarity with groups in the global south who have been fighting these fights and countries who are in a much weaker position have been resisting  – because if we can’t reign in the trade deals that we ourselves are doing, how on earth can we expect countries in the global south to do it? In the Philippines, in Kenya, in Argentina, all over the world people are challenging the corporate agenda and we must not let our allies down.