openDemocracyUK: Opinion

One useful thing Parliament could do now to protect us from a Trumpian trade deal

The government is trying to kill its own trade bill, after Parliament insisted on adding more democracy as a bulwark against secretive negotiations using the Crown prerogative.

Jenny Jones, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, 2018
Jenny Jones Victor Anderson Rupert Read
2 October 2019
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump meeting at the UN in New York, 24 September 2019
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

It often feels like the media have given us wall-to-wall coverage of every single aspect of Brexit. But there is a key issue which has hardly been mentioned: the Trade Bill.

The Trade Bill governs arrangements for future trade deals: with the EU, USA, Japan, India, or wherever. The next big argument after Brexit itself will be around the Government’s efforts to get a trade deal with Donald Trump. Whatever is in the law on trade agreements at that point is going to be crucial.

If Prorogation had gone ahead, the Trade Bill would just have been dropped. But the Supreme Court judgement opens up the possibility of continuing with the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

For the Government, scrapping the Bill became an added bonus from Prorogation. They wanted the Bill dropped – even though it is nearly ready for its final stage in Parliament (the “ping-pong” of amendments between Lords and Commons), and even though it was the Government’s Bill in the first place.

What changed to produce that shift in the Government’s attitude towards one of its own bills? Well, the House of Lords put into the Bill a series of amendments designed to make the process of agreeing trade deals more democratic. This is necessary because currently trade deals, like other international treaties, are dealt with through Crown Prerogative, which means the powers the Government has inherited from the monarch. Although Parliament is responsible for handling any repercussions of a deal for domestic UK law, the international agreement itself is not, currently, for Parliament to decide on.

Amendments in the Lords sought to change all that. Most importantly, they successfully added a new clause to the Bill to give Parliament power to set a negotiating mandate to tell ministers what their priorities should be in any trade negotiations, and to say that no trade deal can be ratified without having been agreed by Parliament. Agreement has to be through an amendable motion, which means that Parliament could agree to a deal subject to specified changes being made, so that it’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it decision. This is now Clause 7 of the Trade Bill, and it marks a complete break with how trade deals have been considered in the past.

Brexit keeps on bringing up the question of the relative powers of Parliament and Government. The Trade Bill is another example, and trade deals are of course a key part of what Brexit is about. We are told that we must leave the customs union in order to do “our own trade deals”. But whose deals are those – and who exactly is “we”? As things currently stand, with the Trade Bill not having become law, it’s the Government’s trade deals and not Parliament’s. That enormously weakens any campaign to resist unfair terms set by Trump in a deal with the US.

The Government were happy to see the Trade Bill just disappear. Even without Prorogation, they can now stop the Bill coming back to the Commons through their control of the timetable. They have already blocked the Bill since it was last considered in the Lords on 20th March.

However Brexit has shown that there can be a majority in the Commons prepared to vote to take control of the Commons timetable on specific days, as was done to legislate against a No Deal outcome. They could include the next time they do this an item of business which simply reads: Commons consideration of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill.

But in that situation, the Government might have another trick up its sleeve. The Trade Bill was introduced by the Government and it is a Government Bill, in that sense their property, so they could simply withdraw it. MPs or peers would then need to introduce an identical bill themselves, although that would need to start again on the process of going through Parliament. However, since it has already been debated and voted on, and since it is essential to the argument about Brexit, this could be achieved rapidly.

If Brexit goes ahead, there will undoubtedly be a campaign to save the NHS and UK agriculture from the aggressive negotiating of the Trump administration and the corporate lobbyists associated both with them and the Johnson Government. How much easier it would be to win that campaign if the Trade Bill as it stands now becomes law.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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