Brexit Britain has just signed away the Pacific trade deal


Last night, the government announced that Britain had joined a trade deal so controversial that it has united Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders in their opposition to US membership.

While die-hard Brexiteers like to pretend that this is the ultimate payback for our decision to leave the EU and write our own rules, the reality is somewhat different.

In signing the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), Britain ditched environmental standards, signed up to terms that would harm British farmers, and opened us up to lawsuits by multinational corporations in secret courts. And not all for real economic benefit.

The deal began life as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a last gasp of hyper-globalization. Along with its ill-fated sister deal, TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), it aims to lock participating countries into rules that favor pro-market, corporate interests.

Corporate power grabs were then sold to a skeptical public as a way to contain China’s economic might, immersing that country in a sea of neoliberal trade.

But, as with TTIP, the deal runs into strong anti-globalization headwinds. In the US, the last thing the public wanted was more outsourced jobs, longer and more fragile supply chains, and more power vested in big business. The 2016 presidential election was the death knell for the US membership.

When the United States withdrew, some controversial parts of the deal were put on ice — including rules that would hand pharmaceutical monopolies more power to set drug prices. But there is much to dislike about what remains known as CPTPP.

The most pressing issue to be reported from the talks is that Britain has been forced to lower environmental standards as a condition of entering the agreement. In Malaysia, palm oil plantations are a driving force in deforestation, threatening biodiversity, including the survival of orangutan populations.

European tariffs on palm oil are aimed at halting deforestation, but the UK is understood to have agreed to scrap the tariffs as a condition of joining the Pacific deal, thereby withdrawing deforestation commitments made at the UN climate conference in Glasgow. But it receives worse, due to the fact the Pacific Trade Agreement isn’t always a one-time set of rules but rather gives corporate lobbyists permanent power to force governments to maintain lower standards over time.

The whole point of the CPTPP is to allow countries to recognize each other’s equivalent standards – and accept imports even where there are genuine differences between standards.

Britain still supports the precautionary principle, which puts the burden of proof on the producer of a product to show that it is safe. Most signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership do not, and there will be inevitable pressure to adopt pesticide-laced feed that bans antibiotic or hormone-treated beef from livestock raised here.

But nothing demonstrates the heavy bias towards big business interests better than the corporate court system at the heart of the CPTPP – an international arbitration system that will allow corporations to sue the British government for “unfair” treatment. Fairness, here, is fantastically subjective.

Corporate courts are increasingly being used to challenge all climate action, and Canadian companies have brought 64 lawsuits against the government, a particularly aggressive user of the system.

In one such ongoing case, Columbia is being sued for $700 million for daring to limit its gold mining operations on environmental grounds, a Canadian company that did not even have all the permits it needed to mine and was denied an environmental impact assessment.

In another, more famous, case, a Canadian corporation is suing the Biden administration for $15 billion for canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, which carried environmentally destructive tar sands oil from Alberta to the United States. Canada is a signatory to CPTPP. And all this in the absence of evidence that the deal will increase jobs or growth.

According to government estimates, the deal would add just 0.08% of GDP after running for about 10 years – a number so small it’s meaningless in the uncertain world of economic predictions. So what’s the use? For the government, in true Lease Truss style, it’s “proof” that they can do things, even if those things may be harmful to the people they govern.

For some, joining the Pacific Pact has an added benefit: the rules that apply to us are decoupled from EU rules, giving future governments an extra hurdle to negotiate closer ties with our neighbors.

All of this is a far cry from the idea that we’ll get to set our own rules, with this trade deal. Trade newshounds stated that any other Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement member, Japan, labored tirelessly to make certain that Britain complied with “all current CPTPP regulations without exception”.

To demonstrate that we have taken back control, we are giving it up as soon as possible. And one last thought for those who hoped for parliamentary sovereignty was a bedrock of British democracy: the parliamentary committee capable of properly vetting deals like the CPTPP was abolished last week.

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Marta Lopez

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By Marta Lopez

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