Decisions about trade deals will have knock-on effect post-Brexit

I'm grateful for the support I received in the SNP Depute selection. While I’m disappointed not to have won the role the work goes on. I have a job to do for the party and for Scotland, a job I asked for and a job that is more important than ever.


First published in The National, 18 October 2016

It is safe to say there is plenty to be getting on with. As all of us in our daily lives try to make sense of whatever Brexit might become, my job is to keep people informed and engaged as that process evolves.

During the EURef campaign up and down the country I was struck that there were some of those of us on the left who voted Leave over concerns about the trade policy of the EU. There have been some really important developments on this in the last week, which will have even more significant implications for us in Scotland.

There are two main trade treaties currently under consideration: the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Canada Europe Trade Agreement (CETA), both of which are in different stages of negotiation, and both of which create some controversy.

I’ve written previously about both, but it is worth setting out our position again. The SNP’s position is that we will look at anything that could boost Scotland’s economy on its merits. Too many people are still struggling in their day-to-day and anything that will encourage jobs and prosperity will be given a fair hearing. We’re pro-trade and in the months and years ahead I fear many will come to realise just how important trade is to our economy and prosperity when a lot of it has been taken for granted.

But it is not free trade at any price. I’m wary about some of the developments of trade policy, given so much of it seems to advantage multinationals that then set state against state in a game of who can pay the least tax, and use labour laws as a race to the bottom. Both treaties also foresee the Investment Court System, an alternative body of law whereby investors can bypass the general law and have disputes heard in specific corporate courts. As a lawyer myself I find the idea offensive. I can see an argument for it if we were dealing with North Korea, but when considering some of the most developed jurisdictions in the world I don’t buy it.

There’s also the issue of sovereignty. I want the product safety, environmental rules and working conditions set by democratic parliaments I can vote for, and I don’t want to see those hard-won rights and standards traded away in the name of myopic, short-term efficiency. We live in a society, not an economy.

CETA is in a later stage of discussion, and while TTIP is still being negotiated CETA has been largely agreed and is now before the member states for approval. This week on Tuesday, the German Constitutional Court ruled that it is legal under German Constitutional law, so one potential hurdle for it was removed. There had been some concerns that the scope of the treaty actually contravened the German constitution, so many rights were being transferred. But on Friday the Wallonian Parliament ruled against CETA, and will withhold its consent to Belgium approving the treaty.

This is not entirely an immovable object, but it is a constitutional crisis in Belgium, and shows what a powerful regional legislature can do. It also gives a pointer to how difficult future UK-EU negotiations will be, given it is not just 27 Parliaments that will need to approve any deal, but a few others besides.

To my mind, both treaties are sunk and they’re sunk because the democratically elected governments of the 28 member states, and indeed a big chunk of the democratically elected MEPs, who will have the final say, are either unconvinced or actively hostile. I hope that we will then come back to both, and salvage the parts that will encourage trade without the negative consequences. I’m in favour of a treaty, I’m just unconvinced by these ones.

But the consequences for us in Scotland are even more direct. The UK has been the biggest cheerleader for both CETA and TTIP, the same UK Government that now finds itself needing to make deals for a post-EU future. There are two deals written and good to go right there, and instead of the other 27 states being involved in their scrutiny, a UK Government desperate for results could sign us up in a heartbeat with the US and the Canadians and call it progress.

There’s another potential deal in the deep freeze with the Gulf Co-operation Council, the Arab Peninsula states, that the EU has on our behalf blocked over lack of progress on human rights. Tory MPs are already salivating (and earning cracking consultancy fees into the bargain) at the prospect of a trade deal with the Sheiks, now that we don’t need to worry about all that namby-pamby human rights stuff or what the rest Europe thinks of us.

So the democratic scrutiny of TTIP and CETA has found both to be rather wanting, and within the 27 member states I think they’re toast. But the UK, in a discussion that will begin and end in a Palace on the banks of the Thames, could sign us up to both and worse. Brexit Britain ain’t going to be leading any ethical trade policy and we should all be concerned about it.