Britain has signed an agreement to join one of the world’s largest trade blocs in a move that Rishi Sunak said would help the UK take advantage of “post-Brexit freedoms”.
The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-member Asia-Pacific trade bloc, last night approved the UK’s membership after two years of haggling over quotas and tariffs.
Britain will be the first country to join the CPTPP since the group was established in 2018, and ministers said the deal would add £1.8bn a year to the UK economy by the end of the decade.
The deal is the first major agreement struck by Kemi Badenoch, the new Business and Trade Secretary, who said it would act as a “gateway to the wider Indo-Pacific region”.
The Government argues that joining the group will boost UK exports by cutting tariffs on goods such as cheese, cars, chocolate, machinery, gin and whisky.
The Prime Minister has also hailed the agreement as an illustration of the “real economic benefits of post-Brexit freedoms”, and said it would help the British economy to “seize opportunities for new jobs, growth and innovation”.
However, critics have stressed that the economic benefits of the CPTPP will be limited, since the UK already has trade agreements with the vast majority of its existing members and the deal would add only 0.08 per cent to GDP.
The new pact has also stoked backlash from activists, who described the decision to cut UK tariffs on imports of products such as palm oil as “outrageous”.
Here i takes a look at the potential problems and controversies with the new Trans-Pacific trade deal:
Limited economic benefits
The Government’s own estimates suggest that joining the CPTPP will only add around 0.08 per cent to the size of the UK’s economy over the next 10 years.
Critics have pointed out that this will do little to offset the estimated 4 per cent reduction in the UK’s potential economic growth brought about by Brexit, according to figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which provides forecasts for the Government.
It is understood that the trumpeted £1.8bn annual gain for the UK economy from the CPTPP trade deal will not kick in until the full benefits of joining the bloc take effect, likely in 10 years’ time.
David Henig, UK director at the European Centre for International Political Economy, said the partnership was a “shallow” trade arrangement “that mostly focuses on tariff reductions in the same way that our existing free trade agreements with nine of eleven members do”.
The UK already has trade deals with Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Peru and Vietnam, which make up the vast majority of the CPTPP’s 11 member states.
Mr Henig said the deal may bring about “minor gains for the UK economy, primarily from reduced trade barriers with Malaysia, with whom we don’t have an existing deal”.
Brunei, the only other member of the CPTPP with which the UK does not have an existing trade deal, is expected to deliver minimal gains for Britain through the new agreement.
However, Mr Henig said imports from countries like Vietnam “would grow over time” and could deliver more favourable gains in the long-term.
The Government is understood to believe that the new deal will go further than existing trade agreements with member countries, and that it will be easier to trade things like car parts to countries such as Singapore as the rules of origin are more liberal.
More economies are also likely to join the bloc, meaning the UK could gain access to new markets. Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador have applied to join CPTPP, while Thailand and South Korea have expressed interest.
Charities have hit back at news that the new Trans-Pacific trade deal will relax tariffs on palm oil from Malaysia, a product blamed for widespread deforestation.
Daniela Montalto, head of forests at Greenpeace UK, described the deal as “outrageous”, adding that cutting palm oil tariffs would only incentivise further destruction.
Clare Oxborrow, senior sustainability analyst at Friends of the Earth, a campaign group, also warned that the trade deal undermined the UK’s commitment to eradicating deforestation from its supply chains.
Ms Oxborrow said: “Many parts of Southeast Asia have been heavily scarred by deforestation, particularly that driven by palm oil production. With our natural world in a state of emergency, we must bring in tougher measures to ensure that products bought and sold in the UK adhere to rigorous environmental and human rights legislation.”
Unions have raised concerns that the new deal could see the UK become complicit in the exploitation of workers in member states.
Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, said the deal would sanction the exploitation of labourers in Vietnam and Brunei “where independent unions are banned, and Malaysia where migrant workers are subject to forced labour”.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said ministers still needed to “provide answers on vital issues”, and that UK trade policy “must promote democracy, workers’ rights and environmental protections worldwide, including through supply chains”.
Unions also condemned clauses in the new deal that will allow large companies to sue the UK Government behind closed doors if they believe their profits have suffered from changes to laws or regulations.
Mr Nowak, the TUC’s general secretary, said: “This deal allows multinational corporations to sue the UK government in secret courts for introducing policies which threaten their profits – this could include an increase in the minimum wage or bringing energy companies back into public ownership.”
The Government is understood to be fairly unfussed about the provision, since the UK already has several similar agreements in place and is yet to lose an investor-state dispute case.
Britain has also agreed tariff reductions on food products such as bananas, rice and crab sticks as part of the new trade pact following requests from Peru, Vietnam and Singapore respectively.
However, the decision to boost beef imports from other member states has raised fears over potential welfare concerns.
The fears are largely unfounded, since hormone-treated beef remains banned under the new Trans-Pacific trade agreement following last-minute wrangling with Canada.
Under the new deal, Canada will be allowed to export 13 kilotonnes of beef to the UK each year.
Though Canada had been pressing the UK to overturn its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef, its demands were ultimately rejected, and ministers have insisted the UK’s ban on hormone-treated beef remains absolute.