David Henig / Oct 2018
It was surely one of the least likely of tweets to go viral, a picture of the EU-Singapore trade agreement, or at least several reams of paper sandwiched between red front and back covers. Tweeted by European Council Press Officer Juri Laas, at the last count it had been retweeted over 1000 times, and liked 2500 times.
Judging by many comments, this picture has become the latest artefact in the Brexit wars, an illustration of the complexity of trade agreements, and by extension the futility of the idea the UK will be signing lots of these in the years after Brexit. Yet more serious points can be found in some comments, namely a sense of bafflement as to why the agreement is so long, and whether anyone could possibly have read it all. Good questions both, and ones with distinct implications for democracy generally, and UK trade policy in particular.
EU trade agreements now cover such a wide area, from tariffs to product regulations, intellectual property to labour standards, and service provision to state owned enterprises, that it is hard even for trade experts to keep up with the content. It is even harder for members of the public to understand what is being negotiated, behind closed doors, and how it affects them. Given their impact trade agreements are also the target of serious lobbying particularly from large businesses. There are good reasons for civil society to have concerns about the process of negotiating trade agreements.
Even ahead of Brexit the UK is starting to get a preview of what could be involved. In recent weeks it has been reported that the Government’s proposal to maintain membership of the multi-country Government Procurement Agreement has met with objections from other members. Similarly there have been objections raised to the way agricultural quotas at the WTO are to be split between the UK and EU. Agriculture and government procurement are both sensitive topics, and it is not known whether the UK will have to offer more to other countries. If it does there may well be concerns from the likes of farmers and trade unions, even though for now these will probably be drowned out by the endless Brexit debate.
Yes there is currently no requirement on the UK government to consult parliament or anyone else on these matters. This is not likely to be sustainable.
By contrast the EU has developed an extensive system of consultation. Nearly every week for 11 months of the year member state representatives discuss trade issues with the Commission. In the various different formulations of deputies and full members, and specialist meetings, it is frequently far more than once a week. Trade ministers meet twice per Presidency, and there are frequent informal meetings. In the European Parliament the International Trade Committee meets every few weeks, typically for two days, to consider all manner of trade issues. A recent meeting covered a typical variety of issues ranging from the G20 to Western Sahara, via Central America and China. The rapporteur and shadow system in the committees allows all MEPs to know who to talk to about specific issues. There are also various Commission advisory groups including an expert group on EU Trade Agreements. The latter emerged amid the controversies engendered by the TTIP negotiations between 2013 and 2016, and the Commission seems to have come out of this process stronger, at least for the moment.
Back in the UK there is also scrutiny of the way the EU carries out trade policy, at least until March. Thus the EU Scrutiny Committees of the Houses of Lords and Commons had to receive explanatory memoranda from Government on the EU’s proposals for splitting agricultural quotas. Had it not been for this requirement, and some media reporting, there would have been only minimal information given by the UK government, to the extent that talks were going well.
In less than 6 months time the UK Government will have full control, within constraints of the Withdrawal Agreement, over UK trade policy. At the moment they will do so with far less scrutiny than is given to EU trade policy. This could be heavily tested if negotiations commence with the US, notwithstanding the current consultation.
In a statement to Parliament in July Secretary of State Liam Fox promised to involve Parliament and stakeholders, but with few concrete proposals. One that does copy the Commission is a Strategic Trade Advisory Group, though membership is yet to be announced and it remains to be seen whether this will be as broad ranging as the Commission’s group. Fox would do well to copy some of the EU’s other approaches, most notably in the establishment of a Parliamentary committee that scrutinises trade policy on an ongoing basis. Although there is already a Select Committee on Trade, this typically issues major reports on discrete subjects, and is not well suited for the day-to-day business of trade policy. The UK could also usefully follow the example of external Sustainability Impact Assessments for trade agreements.
The EU is an experienced trade policy actor, while the UK is just starting out. It isn’t however too long ago since the Commission was under intense pressure over its handling of TTIP negotiations. Lessons seem to have been learned. It would be good if the UK government didn’t have to learn the hard way, through a difficult negotiation with the US, that it is wise to have structures in place to handle trade policy.