The iron fist of trade liberalisation starts to lose its grip

by Ronnie Hall, Critical Information Collective

The current political turmoil poses both challenges and opportunities for those concerned about the impacts of free trade agreements in the run up to the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference, scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires 11-14 December 2017.

Suddenly, following Trump’s election and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) grinding to a halt, Brexit, and considerable uncertainty about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)[1], the iron fist of trade liberalisation seems to be losing its grip.

In fact it can be argued that that grip was previously so rigid, so utterly hegemonic, that only the maddest of people would dare to challenge the status quo. Thus have the critics of globalisation been characterised and (mostly) successfully repressed. Then, enter one Donald Trump, who just doesn’t care and arguably is mad. My view is that trade negotiators have only themselves to blame.

Trade is a hot topic now. It is hard to remember a time over the last 25 years when it was so constantly in the news, with more and more people open to finding out just why free trade agreements are so vehemently opposed by so many people (and indeed what they are)[2].

Although we can’t tell exactly what will happen next, especially with EU elections looming and uncertainty about shifting relationships between the US and other countries, it is still highly likely that the period in the run up to the WTO Ministerial will offer a significant opportunity for communicating more about the negative social and environmental impacts of free trade to a broad swathe of people.

It’s also a fair bet that much of the focus of the Ministerial itself will actually be about the bigger picture, with negotiators defending free trade and railing against the supposed threats of protectionism, rather than wrangling over the usual obscure minutiae of free trade deals. This kind of language has already been emerging from the World Economic Forum’s annual jamboree in Davos in January, and from the WTO’s informal meeting of ministers held there at the same time.

For example, in his personal concluding remarks the chair of the WTO meeting, Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, emphasised that, “Ministers noted that protectionism was not the right answer to anti-trade sentiments and to concerns about technological change. Instead, trade should be made more inclusive and its benefits spread more widely”.[3] This is a good indicator of the broader debate that may be at the forefront of the Argentinean Ministerial, making it an ideal opportunity to speak out about how and why free trade creates such inequalities (and why tweaking national policies isn’t going to stop this).

One critical message has to be this: it is not a case of ‘Trump versus trade’. You don’t have to pick one or the other. If you hate Trump it doesn’t mean you suddenly have to become an ardent supporter of free trade deals. There are other people-friendly alternatives to running our economies and international relationships, built on dignity and equity for all, and respect for our environment. And this, after all, is surely what many of the protest voters in the US and the UK are really looking for. Watch this space!

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/may/03/doubts-rise-over-ttip-as-france-threatens-to-block-eu-us-deal

[2] Take this BBC Radio 4 programme last week for example, “Negotiating a trade deal”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08bbcz6

[3] https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news17_e/schneider_ammannspeech_e.pdf