Preface to the second edition
President Biden could still sign a damaging corporate trade deal with the UK
In November 2020, Donald Trump was defeated in the US presidential election. At the time of writing, Trump is still to concede, and the deep social divisions that his presidency pushed to breaking point still remain. But there is at least hope for change, albeit moderate, on issues like immigration, climate change and a more international, coordinated response to coronavirus.
When it comes to the US-UK trade deal, things are much less certain. That’s because trade deals today are driven by big business interests. The demand that we import chlorinated chicken comes from US agribusiness. The demand that the NHS pays higher charges for medicines comes from the pharmaceutical industry. The demand to drop our digital services tax comes from Silicon Valley’s big tech corporations. While our allies in the United States will doubtless do all they can to push the Biden administration to control these corporate titans, the modern day ‘robber barons’, that will be a monumental struggle. And we can’t forget that it was the Obama-Biden administration that pushed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the US-EU trade deal that caused controversy across Europe, and that looked very similar to the US deal currently under discussion.
What’s more, the British government has announced that “almost all chapter areas are now in the advanced stages of talks”. They will race to complete the deal, building as much Democrat support as possible before Summer 2021, when there is a deadline on the president’s power to hurry a trade deal through Congress. After that point, ratification gets much more difficult.
That’s not to say the British government will have an easy ride. Donald Trump had a clear rationale for negotiating a US trade deal. Trump sees everything as a zero-sum game. He believed the US gained only when its ‘opponents’ – China and the EU – lost. For Trump, a US-UK trade deal was a means of weakening EU standards and protections, and of pulling a major economy into the US orbit.
Biden sees things differently. He had no truck with Brexit, and wants to mend fences with Brussels. And he thinks his priority should be dealing with the worst pandemic in a century, not negotiating a trade deal with Britain, which is of marginal interest to his country. What’s more, his strategy for recovery – boosting ‘buy America’ policies in government procurement, for instance – runs directly counter to Britain’s interests in this deal. The pitifully small gains for Britain’s economy are likely to fall still further.
But that might not worry the current British government, which is not interested in a US trade deal because it will create jobs. Indeed, our arguments against a US trade deal are not about our overall relationship with the US, or how many goods we trade per se. They’re about our desire not to import a fundamentally different, more market-driven regulatory model into Britain, replacing the standards and protections we’ve developed over many years and entrenching corporate power. But of course, that’s exactly what Johnson’s government always wanted.
In that sense, the main negotiation over a US deal is still between Johnson and the British public. It is us, not Biden, who need to stop him. For that reason, we can’t put away our placards yet. Even if Britain has slipped back in the queue, we could still be lining up for the chlorine chicken slaughterhouse under the likely terms of a deal with the US.
We can beat this deal, and in so doing throw a huge spanner in the works of this project. That would also make a small contribution to an even bigger goal: the transformation of a trade system that currently treats the whole world as a gigantic marketplace, in which our food, healthcare, our rights online – are seen as irritating impediments to be stripped away in the interests of global capital.
Nick Dearden, November 2020.