THE BLOG

Mr Fox Goes To Washington. Why?

24/07/2017 09:09 BST | Updated 24/07/2017 09:09 BST
Bloomberg via Getty Images

UK trade secretary Liam Fox MP is due to visit Washington, D.C. on Monday, 24 July for talks with the US administration on a future UK-US trade deal. As representatives of working people on both sides of the Atlantic, we want to know what exactly he is after except air miles and a publicity stunt.

Mr Fox has claimed that Britain's tremendous trade with the European Union can be replaced - and even improved upon - by enhanced trade with the USA and other countries.

For the UK, that's a dangerous pipe dream, because despite the enormous trade flows between our two countries, it's unlikely that the USA could come close to replacing a significant proportion of the UK's current trade with the rest of Europe, which is half of all UK trade.

And for the USA, trade with the rest of the EU is far greater than trade with the UK, and much more likely to grow.

Trade agreements on their own are not the best way to increase trade between developed economies like ours - and certainly not the best way to create growth. Our respective governments would be better off devoting time and energy to boosting demand through infrastructure investment and raising pay.

Nevertheless, properly managed, trade can create good, secure, well-paid jobs. And it can mean more choice for shoppers and lower household costs for working people who are, of course, also consumers.

But if it isn't properly managed, bad trade deals can destroy jobs, suppress wages and harm our industries and public services, as well as raising prices and lowering quality.

As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, Britain's workers have a vital interest in the future relationship between the UK and the EU. And that really needs to be settled before we arrange a trade deal between the UK and the US - if one is eventually needed at all, which would not be the case if the UK were to stay in the EU Customs Union.

Negotiations between the UK and the EU have only just started, and won't get around to the future trading relationship for months if not years. US workers will need to know the shape of the future UK-EU relationship before working out what's in their best interests.

The TUC and our colleagues in the European Trade Union Confederation have called for the future relationship to include frictionless, barrier-free access between the UK and the rest of Europe, with continuing protections for workplace rights to prevent undercutting and exploitation.

UK and US trade unions, with our long experience of trade deals around the world, know that these issues - and the protection of public services like Britain's NHS - are vital if trade is to benefit ordinary people, rather than the top 1%.

We also know that trade deals negotiated behind closed doors, with only the politicians and their trade experts present - or with the voice of business present but no role for workers - are bad deals. It is why American workers' top priority is reforming the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

We'd have more confidence in Mr Fox's trade strategy if he was more open to trade union concerns and voices. But the fact that neither of our trade union movements have been consulted about this trip suggests it's not a real trade mission at all. Business organisations that we regularly engage with know nothing more than we do. And that really does imply that this visit is more of a public relations stunt than serious trade talks.

The first thing any government needs to do before preparing trade negotiations is to find out what is wanted by business, workers and civil society. Until then, we must remain deeply sceptical and a little suspicious of what Mr Fox and his friends in the US administration are up to.

Frances O'Grady is general secretary of the TUC

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO