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Leaving the EU means the UK needs to negotiate many new trade agreements – indeed the freedom to do so was one of the main arguments used in favour of Brexit.
Trade deals are no longer only, or even mainly, about reducing tariffs. They primarily focus now on reducing other ‘barriers to trade’, for example by aligning national regulations in areas such as product standards, professional qualifications and environmental protections.
Trade deal proposals are therefore often highly controversial, with many fearing they will lead to a lowering of existing standards and protections. The UK’s early discussions with the US around a post-Brexit deal were a case in point, with warnings that it would lead to the arrival of chlorinated chicken on UK shelves or the risk of further privatisation in the NHS.
One of the elements of trade agreements which has led to particular opposition is the widespread use of ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS). This is a mechanism under which a company from one signatory state investing in another can argue that new laws or regulations could negatively affect its expected profits or investment potential, and seek compensation in a binding (and often secret) arbitration tribunal. This effectively elevates the rights of corporations above a country’s democratic right to decide its own laws.
As the UK embarks on agreeing new trade agreements, there are increasing calls for such deals to be designed around clear principles of public interest, not simply on increasing the volume of trade as an end in itself. Many for example argue that trade deals should be used to protect and enhance labour and environmental standards, rather than to reduce them.
With the final Brexit deal rushed through Parliament at the last minute, there have been calls for MPs to have a much stronger scrutiny role in future, and for trade unions to be involved in agreement design where labour standards are at stake. More widely there are calls for the World Trade Organisation to be reformed to focus on major global challenges and greater accountability.
One of the most insistent criticisms of trade agreements has been in relation to their impacts on the environment. International trade is of its nature carbon-generating, as goods are transported around the world. But trade agreements can also open up new markets for commodities produced in unsustainable ways, from fish to palm oil, tropical timber to cement.
Many people therefore argue that environmental protection should be a core principle of trade agreements. Indeed, trade deals could be a powerful mechanism to promote stronger commitments on climate change or biodiversity conservation, rather than weaker ones.
One proposal gaining increased attention is for ‘border carbon adjustment’. This would enable countries with strong climate policies to impose tariffs on imports of goods from countries with lower standards. This would ensure that trade did not become a ‘race to the bottom’ in which lower standards were effectively incentivised. But many developing countries are worried that any such border tax could simply turn into a form of trade protectionism which froze them out of developed country markets.