On 13 January 2022, the UK opened trade talks with India. Unless a different approach is adopted to the UK’s trade strategy, there is little prospect of a deal with India doing any more to tackle climate change or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) than the agreement signed with Australia in December 2021. Campaigners have branded that trade deal variously as dangerous and disappointing. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said that farmers “will wonder what the government got for them” while Australia received everything it asked for, noting that the deal does nothing to protect UK farmers from being undercut by lower standards down under. The Trade Justice Movement called the deal “a disaster for UK climate policy”, stating Australia’s lack of a real climate commitment. Meanwhile, the European Movement redoubled our fight to Save our Standards from being undercut through toxic trade deals.
The Australia deal is accompanied by a side-letter that sets out the “mutual understanding” reached on “a commitment to tackle obesity, reduce tobacco use, and prevent and minimise alcohol-related harms” as routes to reducing NCDs. Whilst the acknowledgement of and intention to address NCDs is a start, side-letters that accompany trade and investment agreements (TIAs) are designed to clarify issues, for example over the investor-state dispute mechanism as New Zealand did in negotiating its accession to the CPTPP. However, side-letters are not enforceable by the dispute settlement procedures. Unlike tariff liberalisation, which is embedded in the text of the TIA, a public health side-letter will have more of a moral than actual effect; it is very unlikely to deliver the obesity strategy or reduce harm from alcohol consumption. Neither will it meet the UK Government’s commitments to its net-zero agenda on climate change. A serious commitment to improving the public’s health and wellbeing by tackling NCDs and addressing environmental challenges would be better demonstrated if trade negotiations started from the position of protecting health and the environment.
As PETRA has already warned, the rush to negotiate TIAs risks overlooking the measures that are needed to make the most of the potential for international trade to be of benefit to the physical, mental and economic health of our nation. This is not just the position of academics though. Increasingly, it is the concern of the public. Successive polling by the European Movement builds on work done by Which? that reveals growing public pressure for the UK’s current food and environmental standards to be protected over and above the levels that will be a feature of the new deal with Australia and potentially with India. In fact, as Sustain reports, 2.6million people signed petitions in 2020 demanding government protection for food standards. Riding roughshod over both health and public demands for TIAs that do not undermine present protections will do nothing to support the collective, multi-faceted action that is required to reduce health inequalities and manage the factors that contribute to rising levels of NCDs. Nor will it enhance support for ‘Global Britain’ or its trade agreements in general. In fact, current trade talks just underline the continuing lack of a trade policy in the UK that embeds such commitments. Such an omission also risks undermining the Levelling up agenda. Those areas of the UK that are likely to be most adversely affected by new trade deals are those that should be the targets for help but this will only be effective if health, environment, and economic policies are truly aligned.
The PETRA Network held an international, interdisciplinary sandpit workshop in June 2021 to identify and prioritise research gaps in preventing non-communicable diseases through trade agreements. There was unanimous agreement that trade deals require systematic scrutiny to determine their impact on different population groups. A health impact assessment of the UK-Australia deal, for example, would have raised red flags over the potential for lower quality food, poorer animal welfare, increased environmental impacts and consequential risk to employment and outputs, particularly in the agricultural sector. For such small predicted, long-term, economic gains to the UK in raising GDP by 0.08% (Australia) and 0.05% (India), these are risks that could be avoided through a rigorous screening process.
The public deserves quality TIAs that will take seriously the rebuilding of physical, mental, social, and economic health post-pandemic. The deal with India must start by benchmarking health and environment, not benching them in a side-letter.