It’s hardly ever a good idea to start talking about chlorinated chickens, as Liam Fox should have known, when answering questions about the trade talks he started with the US. Chlorinated chickens have become a moot point, but that’s only the start of the problems with a potential US-UK trade deal.
Treating chickens with chlorine epitomises the difference in approaches to food safety and animal welfare in the US and the UK at present. The UK, along with the rest of the EU, takes a “farm to fork” approach trying to eliminate bacteria such as salmonella or campylobacter at every stage in the chain. The US by contrast tolerates dirty meat until the very end, when it bleaches everything in the chlorine wash. Done properly, the UK approach is better for the birds, who are more likely to have healthy lives, as well as for people, because there are fewer chances for bacteria to be spread to humans.
There is a choice here, represented by chlorine chicken, beef treated with growth hormone, and pork laced with ractopamine – all of which have risks for human health and animal welfare. As a House of Lords report published in July puts it “the Government may find it hard to reconcile its free trade ambitions with its commendable desire for preserving high farm animal welfare standards.
All these practices are also part of a highly industrialised farming system, with animals kept in intensive mega-farms, a model of farming that is dependent on fossil fuel, contributes to climate change and degrades our soil. Do we want to go further down this path by committing ourselves in this sort of trade deal, or do we want to keep our ability to choose a more sustainable, healthy food system?
The risks of these talks go far beyond this. Fox’s meeting seeks to lay the groundwork for a future trade deal with the US, and we have a good idea what that might look like – TTIP on steroids. Fox has been meeting with a huge number of corporate lobbyists in the past few months, and some of the most powerful groups have been pushing for exactly that – a deal that starts where the controversial EU-USA deal broke off, and goes further in its approach to deregulation.
This would be disastrous for public services, including the NHS. The massive private healthcare industry in the US would love to get its hands on more of our National Health Service, and US senators have already said they hope this could be one of the outcomes of a future deal.
During the TTIP negotiations, legal advice showed the NHS was not protected, and May has declined to rule out putting it on the table.
A trade deal would lock-in privatisation of public services. Such deals can include a ratchet clause ensuring that while the government could always keep privatising more things, it couldn’t bring any of them back into public ownership without punitive financial penalties.
We are also likely to see rules, already proposed in other deals, that make discriminating between different sorts of fuels impossible. In other words, supporting renewable technologies when fossil fuels could do the job could become the basis for a trade dispute.
Much of Fox’s focus is on financial services and there is a huge danger that a trade agreement with the US could be used to enable financial deregulation – making proposals to break up big banks or impose a financial transactions tax extremely difficult. US Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren has highlighted the risks: “We did this kind of [de]regulation before and it resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We cannot afford to go down this road again.”
And of course, a trade deal with the US would include the notorious “corporate courts” (Investor State Dispute Resolution or ISDS). This allows foreign corporations to sue governments for passing regulations that could affect corporate profits, through an international arbitration process that completely bypasses our own national justice system. In practice, this means corporations will be able to sue Britain for doing almost anything they don’t like – environmental protection, regulating finance, renationalising public services, anti-smoking policies – you name it.
It’s not just that a trade deal with the US carries huge risks in itself, it is also the way it is being done. Firstly, Fox is desperate for a deal, but for the US this is just a side affair while it is mainly focused on renegotiating NAFTA (its trade deal with its neighbours, Canada and Mexico). The Trump administration is also on a war footing on trade, ready to start disputes not just about steel but even olives. The UK will have to take whatever is offered.
More fundamentally this is a deal being done in the dark, with no democratic accountability. Fox is not allowed to conclude a trade deal until the UK leaves the EU, but he wants to get as much prepared as possible, so that he can present a fait accompli for a quick conclusion. At that stage, it will be too late for there to be any scrutiny or input from Parliament or the public, so it is vital that there is accountability now. Yet, trade ministers have told MPs they won’t be providing any details of trade meetings like this one with other countries, and they have refused freedom of information requests to even just publish a schedule of meetings.
Parliament at present has almost no say in trade deals like this one with the US. They don’t get to set the objective and mandate for trade deals, they have no right to be informed of progress in negotiations or guide their progress – and they don’t get a vote before the deal is signed. They are asked to ratify a final deal, but the current procedure is a formality that does not allow MPs to actually outright reject a trade deal.
This needs to change. Otherwise it is not just the chickens who are at risk – it is our democracy.
Jean Blaylock is a policy officer for Global Justice Now. This article is reprinted from the Independent