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Editorial: Corporate trade deals are the real threat to democracy

The sound and fury over ‘Russian hackers’ is a distraction tactic

THE return of the Trade Bill to Parliament is a reminder of the threat to our health service and environmental and safety standards posed by further corporate treaties.

The misleading term “trade deal” is routinely used to give the impression that these agreements are innocuous. In fact treaties since the General Agreement on Trade and Services in 1995 have increasingly encroached on democratic decision-making by establishing corporate rights to access whole sectors of the economy and specifying the extent to which sovereign governments may, or may not, intervene in or regulate those sectors.

Popular coverage of these deals implies wrangling between different countries to secure an advantage. This may be less naive than the rosy “everyone’s a winner” press statements that governments use to greet new treaties, but it still misrepresents a process that is more about extending corporate reach and reducing the democratic scope to resist it than it is about advantaging or disadvantaging the populations of rival states.

Commercial confidentiality has been used as an excuse to prevent scrutiny of such agreements. Former shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner once described the extraordinary secrecy around the details of the projected TTIP deal between the EU and US: “I was the first British MP outside of the government to be allowed to read the text … after months of pressure, the Department for International Trade finally opened a secure reading room to make the documents available to me for just one-and-a-half hours every Wednesday afternoon. I had to deposit all my electronic devices in a safe and sign a non-disclosure agreement…”

Though much left commentary assumes Brexit places Britain at greater threat from US trade deals, agreements like the Canada-EU Ceta deal show that Brussels is just as committed as Washington to an agenda of privatisation and deregulation. 

It is not a question of whether Britain can “stand up to” the United States. It is a question of whether democratic forces can stand up to a ruling-class programme that involves the exploitation of public services for private profit.

This ought to put paid to the various distraction tactics that the government is using — such as the ridiculous claim that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was a “useful idiot” for Russia when he publicised documents showing that the NHS was “on the table” in talks with the US.

In the US, a 2016 leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee was blamed (evidence is, to this day, lacking) on Russian hackers.

The furore over alleged Russian interference eclipsed the significance of the leaked material itself — which indicated that the supposedly neutral Democratic Party machine had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders and trying to assist Hillary Clinton to secure the presidential nomination.

The same diversion is now at work here. The government’s claims are vague and unsubstantiated (it is “almost certain” that unspecified “Russian actors” were responsible for the “online amplification” of leaked documents). Their purpose? To “interfere in the 2019 general election.” 

What the documents said and whether they were accurate is not addressed. But drawing attention to them was very wrong, since it served the nefarious purposes of Moscow.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy gave in to this codswallop when she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr she would not have used the documents. Yet, as Aaron Bastani has pointed out, publicising them was unquestionably in the public interest.

If Labour feels that demonstrating its patriotism means endorsing every half-baked conspiracy theory about foreign puppet-masters served up by Downing Street, it will not be in a position to hold the government to account over its trade talks with the United States or anywhere else.

And the real threat to our sovereignty — that posed by transnational corporations that have already sunk deep claws into our public services, including the NHS, as well as our transport, energy and utilities infrastructure — will continue to advance unchallenged.

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