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Barry Gardiner speech to WTO Public Forum, 4 October 2018

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great pleasure to be addressing you this morning, and to introduce what I am sure will be a stimulating debate within the theme of this year’s forum on how we can create a sustainable and inclusive trading system – what I would call a just trading system – for the year 2030 and beyond.

We have a distinguished group of experts in the room with us; and joining us from afar by the power of modern telecommunications we have the Honourable Suresh Prabakhar Prabhu, Minister of Commerce & Industry and Civil Aviation in the Government of India.

To set the scene for our speakers and the debate to follow, I would like to make a few opening remarks.

It is no exaggeration to say that the global trading system is in greater danger today than it has been at any time since the Second World War.

The World Trade Organisation, the premier institution underpinning the rules-based global trading system, is under direct threat. The US President has blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO Appellate Body and has invoked the national security exception to impose unjustified tariffs on the steel and aluminium exports even of his most trusted allies. Now, just over a month ago, President Trump has voiced the possibility that the USA could walk away from the WTO altogether.

My party, the Labour Party, was instrumental in creating the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which served as the forum for multilateral trade negotiations for almost 50 years and still represents the basic rule book governing international goods trade today. It was the post-war Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee that convinced the USA of the benefits of a system whereby countries sit together and negotiate mutual reductions in trade barriers in line with their national social and economic needs.

Our commitment to multilateralism remains as strong as ever. Once the UK takes up its seat as an independent member of the WTO, we will engage actively to strengthen the multilateral trading system. Yes, to press for reform of the institution where it needs reforming. But most importantly, to defend the concept of a rules-based system against the dog-eat-dog anarchy that is the alternative.

A Labour government will also negotiate bilateral agreements with trading partners from around the world. The Labour Party is pro-trade and pro-investment because we value the benefits that international commerce can bring to working people. For that reason, we are committed to working with other countries on a bilateral and a regional basis towards the mutual reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, with a view to maximising the benefits for businesses and working people alike.

At the same time, we are mindful of the problems caused by the tendency of mega-regional trade agreements in recent years to pursue a very different approach from the one we will take.

Why did millions of people take to the streets in protest against trade deals such as TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and USA, or CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement negotiated between the EU and Canada? It was because they saw that those trade deals reached far behind the border into their own lives. And they saw that many of the labour rights, the public health standards and the environmental rules that they held most dear had been newly categorised as ‘barriers to trade’ which were to be downgraded or, worse still, abolished entirely.

And we should be honest with people. It is not good enough for a trade agreement to include statements honouring a government’s right to regulate in the public interest if every other clause in the agreement undermines that right.

Most worryingly, people saw the investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms included in new generation trade deals and realised the potential impact on their own lives. We now have the evidence of over 850 cases in which companies have used the ISDS powers available to them and sued governments for compensation, even when the host state’s actions have been unequivocally in the public interest.

Of those cases that have been concluded, we know from UNCTAD’s analysis that over half were either decided in favour of the investor or settled out of court. Yet even in the third of cases where the tribunal found in favour of the host state, the threat of potential challenge can already exert its own ‘chilling effect’ on governments, dissuading them from legislating in the public interest just in case they too might fall foul of an ISDS challenge.

This is why my party has made the commitment to work with trading partners to find alternatives to ISDS – alternatives that can guarantee foreign investors the security they need while not undermining the rule of law in the countries where they operate. And it is why we have pledged to undertake a comprehensive review of the UK’s existing bilateral investment treaties to ensure they are fit for the 21st century.

This brings me on to another key failing in our current trading system: the lack of transparency and accountability that has come to characterise trade negotiations in recent years.

Trade agreements are international treaties which place binding obligations on countries from one generation to the next. They are not like domestic legislation, which can be repealed when it is found to be technically inadequate or politically unacceptable. Binding treaties therefore need the highest levels of parliamentary scrutiny and external transparency if they are to command legitimacy. Yet far too often, they are negotiated and ratified with the very lowest level of accountability and democratic oversight.

Let me say from the outset that my own country, the United Kingdom, is among the worst in this regard. Over the past year, I have led the parliamentary opposition to our government in an attempt to enhance democratic scrutiny and transparency of trade deals, and although we have won some symbolic victories in forcing the government to confront the issue, we are finding it an uphill struggle to achieve the genuine accountability that we need.

Like many of you in this room today, I am an elected politician. As such, I have to face the obvious question. Why should our voters place their trust in new trade agreements when they know that even their own parliamentary representatives have been given (a) no say in the mandates for the negotiations, (b) no access to the talks themselves and (c) no sight of the consolidated texts of the agreements as they are being crafted?

Why should people have any trust in the new Trade in Services Agreement when all the negotiations towards that agreement have taken place behind a wall of secrecy and the only hint of what is in the agreement is to be found in leaked documents posted on the internet? If we truly want to develop an inclusive trade agenda for the future, then we must get rid of this clandestine and wholly anti-democratic hangover from the past.

And let us be clear. This absence of democratic accountability does not just undermine the legitimacy of trade agreements. If people see that both they and their elected representatives are deliberately cut out of the picture by a self-perpetuating political elite, it undermines the principle of parliamentary democracy itself. And we are already seeing the consequences of that across this continent in the rise of forces that would dearly like to exploit our failings and take us back to the darkest days of European fascism. I say to that: never again.

I am launching the Just Trading initiative today as a means of reclaiming the trade agenda and making it accountable to people’s hopes and needs. And I hope you have all managed to get hold of a copy of the short report that I have brought with me in order to kickstart that debate once again. The report outlines some of the key principles that the Labour Party has already adopted in its trade policy, as well as the areas which we have identified where we need to do further work.

I have highlighted just a couple of issues here this morning, but the report poses more fundamental questions as to how we can ensure that our trade policies take forward our common work for human rights and social justice. Why was it, for instance, that a coalition of over 160 women’s groups from around the world called on WTO members to reject the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Empowerment that was put before last year’s ministerial conference in Buenos Aires? Why has it proved so difficult to manage our trading system in way that respects the food security needs of the most vulnerable communities? And how can we ensure that our support for trade does not come at the expense of biodiversity or undermine our essential fight against irreversible climate change?

Most importantly, the report is designed to be a catalyst for debate at both national and international levels – a ‘green paper’, if you like. I am particularly keen to hear from other parliamentarians so that we can start a serious discussion as to what we should be doing differently as legislators to ensure that we build this progressive and inclusive new trade policy for the 21st century.

So let me conclude with this thought.

Trade can be – and should be – a powerful weapon in our quest for peace between nations and the struggle for shared prosperity.

But trade is precisely that: a tool in our common endeavour to attain higher goals. A means to an end, not an end in itself.

A just trading system is an inclusive system that puts the real needs of people and planet first. It is a transparent system that reaches out to people rather than keeping them in the dark.

To use the language of the Labour Party, a just trading system means recalibrating our trade agreements so that they serve the interests of the many, not the few.

I look forward to this morning’s debate as a step towards that goal, just as I look forward to continuing the broader debate with you as to what a just trading system will look like in 2030 and beyond.

Thank you.

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