Iana Dreyer takes a closer look at the trade policy proposals included in the manifestos of the four biggest parties in the UK general election to be held on Thursday (8 June 2017).
The United Kingdom is holding its general election on Thursday (8 June 2017). The snap election triggered by conservative party leader Theresa May after Easter was supposed to be a shoo-in for the government and to strengthen its current majority. But opinion polls in Britain indicate the Tories have lost their lead in voting intensions, as the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn gained unexpected ground.
Whatever the outcome of the election – an outright majority for the Tories, a hung parliament and/or a new coalition government – the party manifestos show that the debate on trade in the EU is alive and well in Britain, with very distinct positions presented to the voters. The deepest divide is between the Tories vs the three other major parties. We did not look at the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, nor at UKIP, which are expected to score very low.
“Thursday is wierdly up in the air”, said Simon Baptist, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s chief economist. “One of the consequences of a Labour victory would be a resurgence of the legitimate doubt about Brexit”, reckoned the journalist and commentator Wolfgang Münchau.
So, below what the four major parties say on trade.
Tories: hard Brexit, new trade deals, a new 19th century style ‘Board of trade’
“Theresa May’s Conservatives will deliver a strong economy built on sound public finances, low taxes, better regulation and free trade deals with markets around the world”, the Tory manifesto says.
“We have the greatest soft power of any nation, we sit in exactly the right time zone for global trade, our capital city is the global capital of finance and culture, and our language is the language of the world”, the manifesto boasts.
“Britain has always been a great trading nation. Trade will continue to be crucial to our future growth and prosperity”, the public is told.
“As we leave the European Union, we want to negotiate a new deep and special partnership with the EU, which will allow free trade between the UK and the EU’s member states. As part of the agreement we strike, we want to make sure that there are as few barriers to trade and investment as possible”, the manifesto says, without giving further details on the final trading arrangement it wants with the EU.
“Leaving the European Union also means we will be free to strike our own trade agreements with countries outside the EU”, the Tories remind their prospective voters.
Perhaps the clearest policy statement of Theresa May’s government is on the WTO: “We will ensure immediate stability by lodging new UK schedules with the World Trade Organization, in alignment with EU schedules to which we are bound whilst still a member of the European Union”, says the manifesto.
Also, the UK “will seek to replicate all existing EU free trade agreements and support the ratification of trade agreements entered into during our EU membership. We will continue to support the global multilateral rules-based trade system”, the campaigning Tory government announces.
The manifesto further announces “a Trade Bill”, without giving further indications on what it entals.
The UK government appears to have accepted that it will need to increase staffing and capacity, and take some advice and outside input on its future trade strategy: “We will create a network of Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioners to head nine new regional overseas posts. These commissioners will lead export promotion, investment and trade policy overseas”.
The UK government is also sending an olive branch to devolved administrations, which have resented not being taken into account sufficiently in the Brexit debate.
“We will reconvene the Board of Trade with a membership specifically charged with ensuring that we increase exports from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England, and that trade policy is directly influenced by every part of our United Kingdom”, the manifesto reads. The Board of Trade was a 19th century institution in Britain with roots going back to the 17th century, advising on all matters industry and trade. It disappeared in 1970.
Labour: closeness to single market, high standards, WTO focus
A Labour government would “scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain”, Labour tells British voters.
The Labour party announces it will set out an “International Trade White Paper to lead a national debate on the future of Britain’s trade policy”. It also promises “proper transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of all future trade and investment deals”.
Energy trade is an important topic for the UK’s left-of-centre party. “Labour will prioritise maintaining access to the internal energy market. Labour will also retain access to Euratom, to allow continued trade of fissile material, with access and collaboration over research vital to our nuclear industry”, we are told.
“We will seek to maintain membership of (or equivalent relationships with) European organisations which offer benefits to the UK such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency” the UK voter gets to hear
Labour puts a strong emphasis on the need to maintain high product and production standards.
“Labour will … protect our farmers and rural economy by ensuring Britain continues to set the highest standards in food quality and welfare. We will not allow Brexit to be used as an excuse to undercut our farmers and food Britain’s food chain with cheap and inferior produce”, the manifesto says.
“We will drop the Conservatives’ Great Repeal Bill, replacing it with an EU Rights and Protections Bill that will ensure there is no detrimental change to workers’ rights, equality law, consumer rights or environmental protections as a result of Brexit”, the Labour party states.
The Labour party also is at pains to show it is sensitive to the concerns of the devolved regions: “a Labour government will work with devolved administrations to bring forward an integrated trade and industrial strategy that boosts exports, investment and decent jobs in Britain”.
“We will ensure all future trade deals safeguard the right to regulate in the public interest and to protect public services”, the manifesto reads.
“Labour will build human rights and social justice into trade policy”, the voter is told.
The party led by Jeremy Corbyn stresses that it is “committed to the rules-based international trading system of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)”.
Labour further sets out to defend steel workers: “We will work with other WTO members to end the dumping of state-subsidised goods on our markets. The Conservatives consistently blocked EU efforts to respond to such dumping with the duties needed to defend the British steel industry. Labour will develop the full range of trade remedies necessary to support key sectors affected by these unfair practices”.
“We will rejoin the Government Procurement Agreement, whilst safeguarding the capacity for public bodies to make procurement decisions in keeping with public policy objectives”.
“As part of our commitment to a low-carbon future, we will actively support international negotiations towards an Environmental Goods Agreement at the WTO. Labour will use trade negotiations to boost market access for British environmental goods and services, alongside support for investment into new green technologies and innovative low-carbon products”, the voter is told.
The British labour party has taken on board the rising criticism of investment arbitration and investment protection agreements.
The party “will review our historic investment treaties with other countries, ensuring they are fit for purpose for the 21st century. Labour opposes parallel investor-state dispute systems for multinational corporations and we will open a dialogue with trading partners on alternative options that provide investor protection whilst guaranteeing equality before the law”, the promise goes.
Last but not least, “Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy”.
Liberal Democrats: Single market and customs union, and a new say for voters on Brexit
“We believe that any deal negotiated for the UK outside the EU must ensure that trade can continue without customs controls at the border, and must maintain membership of the single market”, the LibDems, led by Tim Farron, say.
The LibDems also say there should be a referendum on the final agreement between the EU and Britain. The centrist party reiterates its belief that EU membership is the “best deal” Britain can ever get.
The LibDems want to “ensure that future trade deals require high safety, environmental and animal welfare standards for food imports, including clear and unambiguous country-of-origin labelling for meat and dairy products.”
The LibDems call for greater sustainability criteria for trade. There is a need to “provide greater resources for international environmental co-operation, particularly on climate change and on actions to tackle illegal and unsustainable trade in timber, wildlife, ivory and fish”, the voter is told.
The LibDems also promise to “introduce Sustainable Development Goals audits of new trade, investment and development deals, reviewing the impact of the deal on people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.”
SNP: single market and Scotch whisky
The message the Scots get from the government that rules in Edinburgh is clear: “We will fight for Single Market membership”.
“We will never allow the Tories to trade away our jobs and industries in Brexit negotiations”, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party defiantly writes in its election manifesto.
The Scots are on a mission to “safeguarding the success of our world-class food and drink sector…. Scotland’s food and drink is a global success story”, the manifesto says. “We will fight to maintain Single Market membership, to protect the future success of the industry”, the manifesto says.
“SNP MPs will also seek to ensure that any future trade deals secure geographical indications for key Scottish food and drink products like Scotch Whisky, Arbroath smokies and Stornoway black pudding”, Scots are told.
“EU regulation over animal and plant health and environmental and food safety gives Scotland access to export markets around the world. SNP MPs will support the Scottish Government‘s efforts to maintain all these current standards and regulations”, the election pledge goes.
“SNP MPs will press the UK government to commit to the Open Skies Agreement in Brexit negotiations to ensure there is no loss of flights to or from Scotland and our airports are not disadvantaged”, the manifesto says.
“So long as Scotland is covered by trade arrangements negotiated by the UK government, the SNP will call for greater transparency in any proposed international trade deals following Brexit, with the UK and Scottish Parliaments being given a say”, the voters are told.
The SNP Scottish Government has committed to “always consider the human rights implications of its engagement with countries and business” and to ensure that “investment agreements should only be signed where appropriate due diligence, including on the human rights record of companies involved, has been undertaken”, we are told.