Express | 29 May 2020
Trade war: UK government blasted for ’unacceptable’ aspect of US trade negotiations
By Edward Browne
The Department for International Trade has been blasted for its claims that the UK has enough trading clout to assert itself in US trade talks, amid concerns.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) has refuted the concerns. But it was not able to confirm to Express.co.uk that a trade deal would not include a clause that would allow US companies to sue the government for implementing policy changes that did not suit them. And a senior advisor to a trade organisation has called the government’s lack of transparency “unacceptable”.
Trade talks between the US and UK kicked off earlier this month as International Trade Secretary Liz Truss attempts to drive a hard bargain with US counterpart Robert Lighthizer.
But months before the trade talks even began there was a lot of unrest about what would be on the table if the UK were to establish a free trade deal with the world’s largest economy.
Ex-labour leader Jeremy Corbyn brought one to the fore during the run-up to the general election last year – concerns that a US trade deal would involve selling off parts of the NHS to private US buyers.
This is something that Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly denied, insisting that the NHS “is not on the table in any way.”
Since then, concerns regarding all sorts of issues including imports of cruelly-sourced animal products and hormone-treated beef – as well as a general lack of transparency surrounding the talks – have also been raised.
But perhaps one of the most glaring is whether the UK simply has the trading clout to aggressively assert itself.
The Trade Justice Movement thinks not. It claims that 13 percent of the UK’s exports are to the US, compared with only 3 percent of US exports to the UK. It also claims that in 2017, the US called for “a more aggressive approach” to its trade.
But the Department for International Trade told the Express that the UK could stand up for itself, noting that “the UK-US trading relationship is vital to both countries.”
The DIT said: “UK-US trade is vital on both sides of the Atlantic. 36,900 UK businesses exported £49.2bn worth of goods to the US in 2018, and 44,300 UK businesses imported over £44.5bn worth of US goods. Over a million people work for British companies in the USA.”
But the DIT was less transparent on other issues; ISDS, for example. The Trade Justice Movement explains that Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) allow foreign companies to sue governments if policies are enacted that might harm profits.
This would allow US companies to, for instance, challenge a UK environmental law that banned certain chemicals for human health.
The DIT did not confirm to the Express that these settlements would not be involved in a deal.
It said: “The precise details of any UK-US Free Trade Agreement are a matter for formal negotiations, and we would not seek to pre-empt these discussions.
“The Government is clear that when negotiating FTAs we will continue to protect our right to regulate in the public interest where we deem fit.”
This brings up the topic of transparency. For much of the trade negotiations so far, the public has had to rely on leaked documents, and David Lawrence, a senior political adviser at the Trade Justice Movement, told the Express why it is an issue.
He said: “This is not acceptable. We need regular release of negotiating texts to provide certainty and predictability, especially as the UK faces the deepest recession in a hundred years combined with the uncertainty of Brexit.”
And, of course, there is the issue of US meat imports. The DIT told the Express: “We have been clear that in all of our trade negotiations – including with the US in our first round of negotiations – that we will not undermine our high domestic environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards by ensuring in any agreement British farmers are always able to compete.”
But the National Union of Farmers is not entirely convinced. It states that the UK’s high standards of food production and animal welfare are underpinned by law, and that this should not change.
It told the Express: “British farmers need to know that their businesses won’t be undercut by sub-standard food imports, and the British public need assurance that the food they buy has been produced to those same high standards, regardless of where it has come from.
“UK farmers and growers are rightly proud of their high standards of production, including on animal welfare.”
Then there is the issue of poultry washed with chlorine to kill off food-poisoning bacteria that can arise from raising and killing chickens in unsanitary environments.
Currently, imports of chlorine-treated poultry are banned by the EU. But when the UK leaves, it is up to the government to uphold its promise that the UK won’t undermine its welfare standards for profit, and ban these imports itself.
Dr Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher at animal welfare charity Viva!, told the Express:
“If the UK imports chlorinated chicken from the US, we will be introducing meat from countries with lower animal welfare standards than our own. This means farmers here, in the UK, will have to compete with cheap, low welfare imports. This, in turn, will encourage lower welfare standards here in the UK."
"The whole reason chickens must be chlorinated in the US is because intensive factory farms have sacrificed good hygiene practices in favour of increased production. Yet again, we see the animal agriculture industry choosing profit above the health and welfare of the animals in their care."