On 20 July, the parliamentary scrutiny process for the UK-Australia free trade agreement (FTA) ended without a debate or vote in the House of Commons. On top of this sub-optimal process, the UK is ratifying its first major FTA since leaving the European Union with no trade strategy in sight. Over two years into this present government’s term, and almost two years since Brexit, we are left asking: what does the government want to achieve through trade?
New found trading independence and multiple opportunities to display global leadership (eg the presidencies of both COP26 and the G7 in 2021) ought to have been the perfect backdrop for a pioneering UK trade strategy, aligning climate, environmental and foreign policies with trade policy. Instead, hurried trade agreements are being negotiated behind closed doors with no overarching strategic objectives. A recent speech by the UK trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan fell far short of its title ‘Leading the way on green trade’.
Whilst the minister acknowledged the link between trade and environmental and climate policies, it is the detail, and the action, that counts. In reality, the UK has signed its first major post-Brexit FTA with Australia, one of the biggest climate laggards amongst developed countries. This agreement could lead to 10,000 acres of Australian land being converted into cattle farms, most of it deforested in the process. Trade negotiations for the UK membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council have also kicked off, despite some members having no legal commitments to net zero emissions and appalling human rights records in others.
Human rights and the environment should be underlying priorities in deals
To turn the minister’s warm green words into action, the government should be prioritising trade agreements only with countries demonstrating rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and implementing policies that protect nature. And breaches of human rights should be a red line for any trade negotiations.
As highlighted last year, the lack of a published UK trade strategy undermines our negotiators. When comparing the signed agreements with Australia and New Zealand, there are notable differences in the environment chapters (eg the UK-New Zealand FTA referenced limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees twice, whilst Australia removed any reference to these limits). This begs the question: is the UK leading or being led in negotiations with its new trading partners?
The direction of travel feels distinctly unstrategic. It seems only to be chasing the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto commitment to secure FTAs with countries covering eighty per cent of UK trade. This relies on signing an agreement with the US (which is not happening) and has resulted in a policy to sign as many deals as possible, as fast as possible. The manifesto commitment to have the “most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” has been deprioritised.
Just encouraging deal partners to do better isn’t enough
Although Anne-Marie Trevelyan listed “greater alignment of our trade and environmental policies” as one of the UK’s four key principles for “leading the way on green trade”, her speech implies that this will be achieved by liberalising trade and merely encouraging other countries to do better. But that won’t be enough.
The government’s food strategy might have provided some clarity, but there is a disconnect between its simultaneous ambitions to maintain levels of domestic production, deliver on growing global demand and increase imports, while implementing a new land use framework to help halt species decline by 2030, treble woodland creation by the end of this parliament and reduce climate emissions by 2035. A trade strategy (something that parliamentarians in the Houses of Commons and the Lords are also calling for) could help to weave these complex goals together.
Equivalent standards for imports and home produced goods will strengthen negotiations
On top of this, the government has ignored relevant recommendations, from the National Food Strategy, the Climate Change Committee, the first Trade and Agriculture Commission and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for core standards to make sure imported and domestically produced goods meet equivalent environmental and animal welfare standards.
There is a huge gap between promise and delivery where trade is concerned, and for food and farming this applies to economic impacts as well as the environment. UK farmers and businesses can’t be expected to embrace the transition to net zero by 2050 and land use reform whilst our markets are being opened up to products from elsewhere produced to less stringent regulations. Trade policy cannot be seen in isolation from these commitments. Core standards should set out the UK’s non-negotiables as part of an ambitious trade strategy that marries trade policy to environmental and emission reduction commitments, as well as foreign policy.
On top of aligning these objectives, this would strengthen the hand of negotiators ahead of talks, and empower domestic producers to innovate in pursuit of consistently communicated climate and environmental targets. It would also give consumers complete confidence in the quality of all products sold in the UK. And that really would be world leading.