Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Why trade agreements are bad for our health

Our understanding of trade deals is limited because they have largely been a matter for the EU. Post-Brexit, we should be concerned about what's happening in Europe, as well as what sort of trade deals are being negotiated by our government worldwide.

Most people will be aware of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and the EU, but less aware of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU. Initial votes on this are imminent and the deal has many similarities with TTIP. Boris Johnson is also record as saying that CETA is a good model for future trade deals.

Yesterday, I was speaking at an event looking at the health impact of trade deals.  While the risks to the NHS are recognised, the wider impact on health policy has not been given the attention it deserves.

Even with the inclusion of health on the 'negative list' in CETA, the definitions are likely to be narrow and this still leaves open a range of other public services that impact on health. The aim of trade deals is to create a globalised market in public services and the 'negative list' approach is too weak. There is also a 'ratchet clause' in CETA that locks in privatisation, even when democratically elected governments want to bring them into public ownership.

There is no protection for public services in the investment chapter that allows private corporations to by-pass governments and domestic courts in favour of tribunals (ISDS), run by private trade lawyers. This exposes a wide range of Scottish public services to challenge because they all have elements of private provision already. Examples include Scottish Water and procurement initiatives like the Scottish Living Wage.

Another aim of trade deals is to reduce the supposed ‘regulatory barriers’ to trade, through ‘mutual recognition’ of regulatory standards. In effect a race to the bottom that ignores the precautionary principle in favour of lower safeguards, commonly found in the USA. In practice, this requires little direct action because ISDS creates a ‘regulatory chill’ factor that stays hand of governments.

The specific health impact of CETA and other trade deals include broadening and extending intellectual property rights which could delay the availability of cheaper generic drugs. All public procurement is covered and this could curtail buy- local food purchasing programs in Scotland as promoted in UNISON Scotland's Food for Good Charter. There is a sustainable development chapter, but like the ILO clause, these are aspirational with no effective citizens right to challenge. Regulation restrictions include licensing procedures that are “as simple as possible”, which means as weak as possible! There is also inadequate protection for public water services and on the ILO Convention right to organise, there is only a weak call on Canada to ratify.

If, as seems increasingly likely, the UK government goes for hard Brexit, trade deals will have to be negotiated across the world. So we need to take the debate away from darkened rooms of international trade lawyers and into wider public debate. This means not just saying what we don't like about them, but also to debate what a progressive trade deal might look like.

There are few international models to copy. The possible exception is the South American APP agreement. However, that is based on a unique barter arrangement that it would be difficult to replicate in Europe.

A progressive trade deal would not build in a comparative advantage that locks in poor countries to a system that makes the global South produce goods that are paid for by speculation economy in the North. To illustrate this, the average EU cow is subsidised by $800, while the average annual income in Ethiopa is $100. Neither do we want the Singapore model, where the UK seeks to out-compete the EU through lower regulation and wages.

It ought to be possible to negotiate trade deals that include enforceable environmental and human rights commitments that control transnational corporations, with a citizen rights to challenge. Warm words in a trade deal are not enough - there has to be an effective remedy for everyone, not just the corporations. A progressive trade deal would encourage the  transfer of skills and technologies, not monopolise them. Trade should contribute to social goals, not limit them. From a health perspective they should include a health impact assessment as standard.

We need to do much more to flesh out these ideas, before the UK government goes away and negotiates in secret. The Trade Justice Movement's, Alternative Trade Mandate 10 Point Plan is a good starting point.

The secrecy and complexity of trade agreements has resulted in very little public debate over their contents. That has to change because they impinge on almost every aspect of public policy, particularly health. The very best public health strategies are useless if they are struck down by private corporations. Modern trade deals are almost an alternative constitution. We wouldn't leave that simply to the lawyers and neither should we with trade.

You can join the campaign against CETA by emailing your MEP here. The Scottish campaign will be lobbying the SNP conference on Saturday.

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