“We're on the same wavelength, I think on every respect” Trump told the press in Davos last week, as Theresa May sat beside him smiling and nodding and looking for all the world like she wanted the ground to swallow her whole. Unable to get a word in edgeways, she was told she shared the President’s “ideas and ideals” and that a visit to Britain will be planned for late 2018.
Then came the payoff for all that cringing: Britain would be put back at ‘the front of the queue’ for a trade deal when we leave the European Union. That’s what May was angling for – proof that Britain can continue to survive and thrive post-Brexit.
Surely, it’s even worth the demonstrations, the protests, the negative headlines which a visit by this most divisive and dangerous of modern US presidents would inevitably create, if the payoff is salvation from a damaging Brexit.
Except that it isn’t. And not simply because appeasing an openly racist and misogynistic president is an insult to all those he demeans and marginalises with his rhetoric and his policies. But also because May’s press conference with Trump shows us most clearly what a trade negotiation would look like. British negotiators sit smiling and nodding and appeasing Trump’s team, while the US negotiators, holding all the cards, put ‘America first.’
Let’s be clear that this isn’t about us buying American goods or the US buying our goods. That happens already – we pretty much have free trade with the US. Rather modern trade deals aren’t as much about tariffs as things that are known as ‘non-tariff barriers to trade’. To you and me, that means standards and protections.
Up to now, Britain has shared the EU’s standards and regulations. Many of us already regard these standards as pandering to the interests of the corporations that lobby for them. But many members of the current government, including Trade Secretary Liam Fox, would far rather we shared the standards of the United States.
This would mean decent workers’ rights, food standards and sound environmental policies would go out of the window.
Just take food as one example. US farms are allowed to wash dead chickens in chlorine to burn away the diseases of a deeply unpleasant life. The EU bans these chickens. But a US-UK trade deal would likely insist on letting them in. One of Trump’s senior henchmen is a charming individual called Wilbur Ross who made a killing in the 2007-8 financial crash from mortgage foreclosures and bank bailouts. He told Britain just a few months ago that changing our food laws would be essential if we want a trade deal with the US.
Chickens are the tip of the iceberg. US standards allow cows to be pumped with hormones and steroids, so they can be kept in appalling conditions, and vegetables to be grown with vast quantities of chemicals and genetic modification. If a trade deal forces Britain to accept these standards, it will have a major effect on our health but even more on the health of the animals we farm.
And what else would US business want out of a trade deal with Britain? Its massive private healthcare industry positively drools over the thought of getting its hands on the NHS. Any trade deal we did would be pushed by these healthcare giants, trying to lock in further privatisation of our health service. We already know that NHS contracting-out has been deeply unpopular and damaging to the health service. A trade deal with the US could lock it into place far into the future.
The US government is extremely hot on ‘intellectual property’ rules, supporting giant drugs corporations which enjoy monopolies over life-saving drugs – at a cost to the NHS. And it wants to overturn laws that force foreign companies like Google and Amazon to keep your data on local servers. That means allowing Silicon Valley to move your data to the US, where they don’t have to abide by European laws on data privacy.
Trump is hardly an environmentalist and could well push for rules which makes supporting renewables energy more difficult.
And finally all of this is likely to be locked into place by a ‘corporate court’ system. Many people now know of these systems from TTIP – the proposed EU-US trade deal killed off 18 months ago. Corporate courts are a special legal system, used in trade deals, which allow foreign corporations to sue governments for passing laws that damage corporate profits.
That means US corporations being able to sue Britain in secret courts for doing almost anything they don’t like – environmental protection, regulating finance, renationalising public services, anti-smoking policies, you name it.
All the while, the British government will continue to smile and nod, even as their insides turn to liquid. We will welcome Trump to London and roll out the red carpet, all so that we can get a trade deal which puts US corporations before the rights and protections of people living in the UK. We will accept their chlorine chickens, hormone-filled beef and genetically modified vegetables, at great cost to our small farmers. We will open up the NHS to US multinationals, never to get it back. And we will agree to let Google and Amazon tell us how they wish to use and abuse our data online.
What an irony if taking back control of trade deals means we lose control of everything else.
Nick Dearden is the director of Global Justice Now. Read more on their campaign for trade democracy.