With the election over and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union on some terms or other now a certainty, it is useful to reflect on the trade negotiations that will follow. I offer these initial observations.
First, there has been much talk of the option of reverting to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules in trade relations if ‘deals’ to replace the agreements to which the UK was party by virtue of its EU membership cannot be negotiated by the end of 2020. However, thanks to the United States’ refusal to agree to appointing new members of the WTO Appellate Body, effectively there will be no WTO rules going forward, until and unless a future US government changes this position in 2021 or thereafter. Once out of the EU, the UK is effectively unprotected in a trade policy jungle, not having been able to negotiate independently of the EU, so pressure quickly to negotiate new agreements will be intense. Domestic proponents of a deregulated, ultra-liberal future, including (for example) further privatisation in the NHS and opening the country’s arms even wider to dodgy flight capital, will make use of this opportunity. The government’s announced intent to legislate an exit from the EU at the end of 2020, whether or not an agreement has been reached, is a first step in this process.
Second, in this process the UK will be at a substantial disadvantage as it negotiates with entities like the United States (an economy more than six times larger, based on GDP at purchasing power parity) and the comparably large European Union. It will have to offer more, in terms of market access and other considerations, to get less. And when anyone in an official capacity says that a particular service or health protection measure, such as the NHS or food safety standards, ‘will not be on the table’, we have to ask what else will be on the table instead. That is the reality of asymmetrical trade negotiations, as countries throughout the Global South have found out.
Third, the House of Commons will be largely irrelevant. A former Canadian cabinet minister pointed out decades ago that: ‘Under our parliamentary system, a Prime Minister or a Premier with a majority has immense power …. [In] 1688 we traded the divine right of kings for the divine right of a Premier or a Prime Minister with a majority at his or her back for a period of five years’. The new Conservative government has a large enough majority that even with a unanimous opposition, close to 40 defections would be necessary in order to defeat whatever legislation the government proposed, and that is all but unthinkable. Advocates for health equity concerned with the implications of post-Brexit trade policy will have to look elsewhere for points of influence. There may not be many.
Thus, fourth, a final irony. The campaign to leave the EU was waged using the mantra of taking back control. During the process of leaving and after its completion, influences and actors outside the UK’s border will probably be more important in terms of shaping the direction of the economy, society and everyday life than they were during the country’s EU membership.