The left has been so focused on fighting big business free trade deals that it hasn’t had a chance to draw up a positive alternative, something which Nick Dearden says is urgently needed
TRADE is always about power. That’s why, in post-Brexit Britain, our trading relationships will be the most important question we face. The good news is that the Labour Party has finally declared its opposition to the raft of toxic trade deals that have been on the table. But the real problem is that the left, more used to fighting against trade deals we don’t like, has little understanding of what “good trade” means. Most recently, Britain has fought for the most extreme version of a toxic trade deal called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an attempt to create the world’s largest free trade zone between the US and the EU. TTIP is one of four massive trade deals being negotiated globally, which taken together represent the biggest corporate offensive against democracy in two decades. In a nutshell, these corporate trade deals turn every aspect of society into a gigantic marketplace. And they set up mechanisms to enforce that vision. Most of them include special legal panels only open to foreign capital — special “corporate courts” which can be used to sue governments for taking action which damages corporate “investment.” Although many of us who opposed TTIP argued that remaining inside the EU was the best way to defeat the deal — and prevent free-trade fundamentalists taking full control of Britain — there are undoubtedly similarities in the movement against TTIP and the vote for Brexit. Both are a reaction to the way that the free trade agenda, in its widest sense, has empowered corporations at the expense of people and democracy. Both herald the demise of neoliberalism. The problem facing the left is that this rupture will only open up progressive potential if the left can lay out a real vision and alternative which resonates with people and that definitively breaks with social democracy’s embrace of neoliberalism. If the left fails, then the far right will fill the space with their own project for economic nationalism. From Trump to Le Pen, to even the previously free trade Ukip, the right have used the anti-TTIP campaign to stoke nationalism. The post-Brexit political vacuum in Britain has been filled, meanwhile, with a hybrid response which tries to hold together an adherence to extreme free trade and deregulation with a form of political nationalism and a clamp down on migration. The progressive elements of the EU project — freedom of movement, some social and environmental protection and co-operation — have been jettisoned, consistent with the long held view of one element of the British ruling class that Brussels, far from being too neoliberal, is too socialist. Our new International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is the most hardline pro-US free trader in the Cabinet. He’s called for a return to the “Victorian buccaneering spirit” of Britain, which should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who understands Britain’s imperial history. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says that the TTIP-style Canadian deal (Ceta) should be a model for our future trading relations. Brexit Secretary David Davis is also in favour of “hard Brexit,” with no ongoing institutional relationship with the EU. Further afield is TTIP’s Pacific cousin TPP. Without question, the government will want to sign the fourth TTIP-style trade deal on the table, Tisa, the Trade in Services Agreement. This super-privatisation deal includes all services, from finance to telecommunications, transport to energy, healthcare and education. From what we know about the negotiations, courtesy of WikiLeaks, the deal will include a “ratchet” clause, making re-nationalisation of services like railways virtually impossible. It also threatens to prevent tighter financial regulation, obstruct governments’ preferencing renewable energy, and remove the right of certain categories of migrants from receiving labour rights. Ministers must be salivating. Our constitution is in the process of being rewritten by the most right-wing government in British history and the left aren’t even making a dent in the debate. The best way to protect decent standards of regulation is to remain close to the EU, probably in a Norwegian-style relationship. Unfortunately we won’t have a voice in how those rules are made, but we could rejoin the EU easily at a later date if we wanted to. This option also allows us to sign our own trade deals. Perhaps most importantly, but most difficult, it would be based on the continuation of freedom of movement to and from Europe for people. This will be hard given the nature of debate in the EU referendum, but that’s all the more reason that the left needs to consistently argue for freedom of movement. This is the best achievement of the EU, without which capital can truly keep us imprisoned while it travels the world picking and choosing between labour forces. Granted, EU freedom of movement coexists with a brutal anti-immigrant policy at its borders. This must be fought too. The dream of a wider freedom of movement — which should be a given for anyone who believes your place of birth should not determine what sort of life you are able to enjoy — will be dead for a generation.
If we want to thoroughly rethink the global economy in a way which replaces neoliberalism with a fundamentally different sort of economy, we need to go much deeper. The whole idea that trade is always and everywhere a good must be debunked. As a first step, all trade deals should be subject to environmental and human rights commitments — and this must be enforceable. The whole goal of trade deals should be an equal, collective form of development with a fair distribution of wealth produced. Special corporate courts obviously need to be scrapped, and replaced with mechanisms that allow individual citizens whose rights are impinged by foreign corporations to achieve restitution — at an international level where individual governments won’t co-operate. This proposal would be brought about if we managed to achieve an international treaty to control transnational corporations, something currently being pushed by Ecuador at the UN — and consistently opposed by Britain. Even the best form of trade doesn’t make up for a good industrial strategy and genuine economic development. So forms of protection have a vital place in modern economics. The key is not to protect your own industry, agriculture or services in a way that sinks your neighbour’s economy. Trade must play a role too, especially where it encourages the transfer of skills and technologies rather than monopolising these things through intellectual property frameworks. Then, we need to evaluate how well trade deals contribute to social goals — equality, improved living standards for the poorest, and so on. Trade must never compromise the food security of nations (by incentivising the growth of export crops over food necessary for local sustenance). Fairtrade has proved that products made in better conditions can find a good market via decent labelling. Transparency is a minimum then. But we could go further and make trade easier for those that produce in decent conditions, or even better produced by co-operatives and collectives. Such trade systems do exist, though they are nowhere near sufficiently developed. The “pink tide” governments in Latin America developed an alternative trade system known as Alba, specifically based on principles of solidarity, redistribution of wealth, and co-operation. Venezuela’s oil-for-doctors programme is one small example, and even Ken Livingstone’s London got in on the act with cheaper fuel to power public transport. The left needs to spend more time studying Latin America in the 2000s, and Spain’s left today, where such ideas were and are hotly debated. It’s been so long since a radical left-wing government came to power in the West that thinking out a positive, alternative trade policy has not been on the top of anyone’s list. When people’s experience of globalisation is simply unemployment and marginalisation, it’s easy to jump on a nationalist agenda, especially when that agenda depicts itself as anti-Establishment. The left urgently needs to develop a clear and compelling vision for international economics that taps into the concerns of those who voted for Brexit, while preserving the internationalist outlook of those on the left who wanted to remain. Such models are the only hope we have of preventing a further decline into economic and political nationalism, based on a fear of the foreigner.
n Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now. You can find the charity’s post-EU referendum updated Ceta briefing at: www.globaljustice.org.uk/resources/ceta-ttips-ugly-brother.