EU-US Trade

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:31 pm on 22nd March 1999.

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Photo of Mr David Chidgey Mr David Chidgey Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 9:31 pm, 22nd March 1999

I see that some genetically modified Members have entered the Chamber, but perhaps we can keep them under control until the end of the debate.

It cannot be right for America to use WTO rules against trade discrimination to force those products on to the European market; our farmers are banned by law from competing with such products. We are faced with growing conflict between regulation of biodiversity in environmental science and commercial exploitation of modified food. There is a conflict between harnessing the benefits of science, maintaining public safety and reassuring public opinion. It is clear that present international structures for regulating trade and the environment are not able to respond adequately to those new environmental and social challenges.

The World Trade Organisation's rules are designed to be flexible and not prescriptive, but fears are growing that the WTO seems to be incapable of enforcing its own rules, and that could prove to be a fatal flaw. If countries feel that the WTO does not work, more and more will be tempted to bypass and ignore it. The major trading powers—America and the European Union—will be tempted to act unilaterally. Already, there are worrying signs that America is negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with China, shutting the door on the European Union and on established convention.

We are in danger of losing a predictable and fair rules-based system under the WTO, and gaining instead arbitrary arrangements based on power. That can lead only to more protection, more trade wars and, eventually, trade anarchy, which would inevitably stifle any response to the global, environmental and social challenges that we face. We must change the WTO's commitment to untrammelled, purist free trade to embrace the wider goals of achieving a sensible balance between free, fair and sustainable trade. We need to build mechanisms to resolve free trade and environmental arrangements—mechanisms that simply do not exist at present.

If anything, the process is moving into reverse. The collapse of the recent talks in Colombia, aimed at establishing a biosafety protocol, is a serious setback. The implications for trade, the environment and food safety are of major concern. It is now becoming clear that America and Canada are attempting to present us with a fait accompli on genetically modified organisms, first, by overriding legitimate concerns in the European Union about the environmental health aspects of genetically modified crops and food products and, secondly, by preventing consumer choice through the segregation of supplies and comprehensive labelling.

Even more alarming is the stance taken by the United States and Colombia that rules to protect the environment must be subordinate to trade rules. That will only heighten fears that trade liberalisation and environmental protection are mutually incompatible—and there is a real fear that the United States will try to overcome EU resistance to GMOs by using WTO dispute processes.

There is clearly a political conflict between the rights and obligations of the WTO and those arising from multilateral environmental agreements. It is vital for all WTO members to reach binding understandings, both political and legal, that will ensure that the trade provisions of the MEAs are accommodated within WTO rules.

This is where our Government must take a leading role. I am disappointed that their amendment merely "notes the current position". We could have done that before we started; what we want is a commitment, and some action. It is simply not good enough to "note the current position"; nor are the signals being sent by the Prime Minister—signals that he supports the American position—good enough. He appears to be backing the Americans' multi-billion-dollar GM commercial and industrial interests. I hope that he is not, but that is the signal that is sent.

The Government are failing to give a clear lead in suggesting that, while tremendous benefits can be gained from the science of genetic modification, it must be regulated and controlled in the interests of public health and the environment. As a result, we see shock-horror tabloid headlines, and widely conflicting claims about the supposed danger, or benefits, of GM technology. What is needed now is a breathing space for rational public debate. We need to find a sensible way of proceeding that will command widespread public support.

The Government should ask the royal commission on environmental pollution to look at all the evidence. It examined the issues in 1989, and is well placed to produce a balanced and authoritative review in the shortest possible time. The Government must also take the lead internationally. They must stand firm with our partners in the European Union, and must use their influence with the United States Government to reduce the possibility of a trade versus environment conflict. They must step up efforts to reform the WTO to ensure compatibility with multinational environmental agreements and compliance with the aims of free, fair and sustainable trade.