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Trade Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 4th February 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 6:15 pm, 4th February 2019

My Lords, I shall try to keep this brief, so I will not read out my amendment. We have heard a lot about the WTO over recent months; it is becoming the lazy answer to a lot of complex questions about how we withdraw from the EU. Some people are using the phrase “WTO terms” as if they are magic words that will solve all our problems. I was relieved to see the International Trade Secretary pouring cold water on those fantasies this weekend and I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to reinforce these statements in her response to my amendment.

For people such as me, who have spent most of their lives extremely sceptical of unaccountable, international governance structures, WTO terms are not the answer to our problems—they never have been. In fact, they are part of a global giant which undermines democracy and restricts the sovereignty of nations to implement their own policies. I find it hard to comprehend how anyone can complain about the EU being undemocratic and then champion the WTO as our saviour, using WTO terms to justify the most destructive and damaging route out of our current political stalemate. Many Greens, environmentalists and social justice campaigners have rallied against the WTO for decades and my amendment asks our Government to work towards adding some accountability to the WTO for reasons I will outline.

After the Second World War, there were two parallel, somewhat competing, initiatives which sought to establish an international system of rules and norms. One of these strands of thought gave rise to the United Nations, which has pursued peace, social development, environmental action and anti-colonialism as some of its fundamental aims. The opposing project established the Bretton Woods agreement, birthing the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which later became the WTO. This second strand of international co-operation placed the economic interests of the West, particularly the United States, far above the demands of developing countries, which were represented in the United Nations. Empires were dismantled but international institutions continue the exploitation of former colonies and the extraction of their precious resources. It is in this context that the WTO and the UN can be seen as somewhat at odds with one another.

More recently, the WTO has protected international economic management and trade from the environmental and social initiatives of the UN. I do not want to overstate the point because there are some WTO rules that allow environmental and other pressing needs to be addressed, but the WTO’s overarching purpose remains promoting international trade and eliminating barriers to trade. There are a number of examples of WTO rulings that interfere with environmental initiatives. The WTO intervened in an initiative of the Indian Government to rapidly increase the country’s production of solar panels and create a strong climate policy. Other WTO decisions have prevented companies adopting conservation rules that would protect endangered and declining species, such as dolphins, sea turtles and tuna.

There are many more examples of the WTO interfering with national sovereignty and international co-operation. The WTO has recognised that there are conflicts between itself and multilateral environmental treaties. It has identified 20 international environmental treaties that it considers could affect trade, such as banning trade of certain species or products—perhaps ivory, for example. The WTO notes on its website that no formal trade disputes have been brought with regard to these multilateral treaties, but I suggest that it is only a matter of time and must be playing on policymakers’ minds when making decisions.

The unique and complex problems posed by climate change, environmental damage and species loss, are not restricted to national borders. These issues are more important than trade. We know that there are now only—I was going to say 12 years—11 years and eight months to make fundamental changes to our economies if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change and ecological collapse. The fact that the WTO itself recognises that there is conflict between its rules and the multilateral treaties designed to avoid environmental disaster is proof that urgent reform is needed.

Our Government talks a good talk on the environment, but at some point they must deliver. That is why, with my amendment, I am asking the Government to negotiate to ensure that UN treaties are given priority and not undermined by the WTO. I hope that this amendment will be supported by everyone who recognises the urgency of the issues facing our planet and the need to reform global governance in response. I beg to move.