Last week the government ratified the first new trade deal since Brexit – and your MP didn’t get to vote on it. Is this what the Brexiteers meant by taking back control?
I’m talking about the UK-Australia trade deal. It is fairly insignificant in economic terms, the government’s official impact assessment suggests the increased trade resulting from the deal will add just 0.08 per cent of our GDP. This is in stark contrast to the 4 per cent of our GDP we are losing as a result of leaving the EU.
But the deal is going to have a big impact on our farmers. The government received advice that the Australia deal would have a negative impact on our agriculture and food sectors, with jobs lost in the agriculture and forestry sectors. Liz Truss explicitly denied this hit to farmers when answering questions about the deal, and it only emerged following a Freedom of Information request by Emily Thornberry.
Farmers are understandably angry that parliament did not get the promised vote on this deal – that the concerns of those living in rural constituencies and their representatives were ignored. As NFU President Minette Batters said over the weekend:
“The situation with the UK-Australia trade deal not going to parliament is classic, quite honestly. The government gave a clear commitment, not only to the industry but to all NGOs and parliamentarians, and they have broken that commitment. There are massive questions around what this means for future free trade agreements”.
It is not just the economic impact that matters: the deal is a Trojan horse to drive down environmental standards. If farmers from other countries face less restriction on their use of antibiotics, or use pesticides that are illegal here, then their production costs will be lower. UK farmers will be forced to race to the bottom or face oblivion. Trade deals agreed without any input from your parliamentary representative will be used to trash our food and farming standards.
The importance of this undemocratic process goes beyond this one deal. These trade deals are going to be the way that we establish our position in the world after leaving the EU. And if the Australia deal sets a precedent, the role of ‘Global Britain’ will be decided without your representative being part of the debate or having a vote.
So how is it possible that parliament did not get to vote on something so important? I’m going to put on my white coat and specs for a bit now to explain the cobwebby mess that is the British constitution. The main point to note is that we have a dualist rather than monist system. This means that trade treaties – being international law – are agreed by the executive (cabinet) rather than the legislature (parliament).
Back in 2010 parliament passed a new act called the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act which, in theory, ensures that parliament could hold up treaties it didn’t like. But while this principle is established, the government still controls parliamentary time, and this government decided not to allow parliamentary time for our representatives to debate the Australia trade deal. So much for parliamentary sovereignty.
When I was an MEP I was able to make the case for the farmers of South West England that I represented, in all trade deals that the UK entered into as a member of the EU. Trade policy was an area where member states withheld full powers from parliament – so we could not amend treaties, only vote for or against them. But the fact that we had the power to bloc them (as the European Parliament demonstrated in the case of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreementin 2012) meant that our voices had influence.
How ironic that the promise of Brexit was of restored parliamentary sovereignty and the end of the power of unelected bureaucrats. The Australian trade deal was written by trade negotiators who are the very epitome of unelected bureaucrats and our Brexit government prevented parliament from voting on it.
As members of the EU we enjoyed the highest level of civil rights and environmental standards in the world. Part of the point of Brexit was to undermine these, and trade deals are being used as wedges to open them up to attack by competitors whose practices damage people and the environment. That is why it is so vital in a democracy that the people who represent us have a say and a vote. And why government side-lining parliament over the Australia trade deal is such a dangerous precedent.