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Just Trading: Labour Should Be Leading New Thinking On Progressive Trade Policies

16/10/2016 23:48 | Updated 17 October 2016
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The referendum result in the UK means that we must rethink our trade policy. However, there is a danger that it is being informed by an 1850s style free trade buccaneering spirit. In my personal experience of discussions on thousands of North East English doorsteps, for many people the referendum offered a means to address a deep malaise about the impact of globalisation locally, and resentment that its benefits are unevenly shared. Tragically, the vote has put gung-ho free marketeers in charge of our trade policy. Instead we need to shape a policy which builds on the advances made through trade justice campaigns for fairer trade.

There are alternatives which we can learn from. This week I joined other progressive MEPs in celebrating the Fair Trade movement which demonstrates practically what is possible when those along the supply chain voluntarily work together to raise standards and tackle poverty. That voluntary action relies on a strong rules base supporting a value-based trade policy.

While we see no plans from the Tories other than vague notions of free trade, the Labour Party is promoting global rule-making that promotes sustainable development, not greater inequality, outsourcing or undercutting. Through his "Just Trading" initiative, Shadow Minister for International Trade Barry Gardiner rightly aims to create a global community of progressives working together towards a "best in class" model trade agenda.

After 10 years working on EU trade policy and negotiations, I think there are four key issues we need to address to take that fair trade agenda forward.

Firstly, and urgently, as our trade relations with partner countries are re-evaluated and new relationships developed, the British government must operate on a 'do no harm' strategy, particularly as regards to those developing countries which currently benefit from tariff-free, quota-free access to UK markets through EU 'Everything But Arms' and the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) agreements. Fair trade producers have gained market access through these agreements and we should do everything possible to avoid that small producers and cooperatives are hurt by disruption in market access.

Secondly, we must get away from the idea that trade deals are bad by default and seek to use them to regulate globalisation and promote fair trade. Future deals will need to go beyond classic trade instruments such as tariffs and quotas and cover areas which were previously covered by domestic regulations. This is because it is clear that domestic regulations have ceased to be capable of guaranteeing basic rights, ensuring consumer protection or tackling global challenges like climate change. Domestic labour regulations are routinely bypassed by multinationals, creating unfair competition with local producers, just as they evade paying their taxes. Faced with this reality there are two routes to choose from: revert to complete isolation and build massive walls, or remain open and create fair global rules to deal with the consequences of global integration. We will need to fight in the UK to not only keep the current level of workers' rights we have but a progressive vision would be to export high regulatory standards to other parts of the world through our trade deals.

Thirdly, there must be increased democracy to rebuild trust. The 'governance' of globalisation for years, without much progress: the priority has always been to increase business, even when it means leaving citizens aside. What the TTIP and CETA debates in the European Parliament have shown is that this 'trade first, democracy second' approach is already a thing of the past. Policy making is increasingly transparent, sensitive documents are leaked when they are not wilfully disclosed and social media has revolutionised the way elected representatives and officials interact with the public. We must build the right institutional setting to ensure democratic scrutiny and control of trade agreements. Parliaments, courts and civil society are equipped to do this job. Opaque regulatory bodies or private arbitral tribunals are not and must be opposed vigorously.

Fourthly, we must address the democratic legitimacy and accountability of the WTO. While the multilateral trade agenda throughout the WTO has been stalled for years it remains the best forum to discuss and implement global rule-making. Brexit may have the unintended consequence of breathing new life into the WTO. But, if the hard Brexit Tories have their way, while we would not be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice anymore - we would remain under the threat of litigation by the WTO's dispute settlement body, for instance over food safety measures like hormone-treated beef. A progressive trade policy must seek a more progressive global rules framework within the WTO, finding allies around the world for a new consensus.

The referendum is pushing us to discuss our place in the world in a way not seen for years. Out-of-the-box thinking is not a luxury but an urgent necessity, and anyone calling for a paradigm shift must get involved now or risk missing this rare opportunity, and leaving the field open to the buccaneers.

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