Andrew Tettenborn

The problem with linking trade deals to human rights

(Photo: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street)

Trade deals are in the air post-Brexit, but not everybody is happy. In a speech this week Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, accused the government of not taking international morality into proper account when closing such deals. She demanded the government take steps to suspend trade deals with a number of countries that, according to recent research by the TUC, had a murky record on labour standards and human rights.

By failing to do this and continuing to deal with these regimes, she said, the UK would be turning its back on workers everywhere and in addition demonstrating that it could not be trusted to observe decent standards at home. By contrast, if it made the signing and observance of any trade deal conditional on the other party’s acceptance of TUC-approved labour and social standards, the UK could then use its leverage to force change on other countries.

The TUC wasn’t the only body to strike a sour note here. The Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry – with Sir Keir’s blessing, or at the very least acquiescence – made her own similar speech at about the same time. According to Thornberry, the UK was morally obliged to occupy the high ground and tell other countries that they wouldn’t get trade deals unless they accepted its standards on workers’ rights.

Not only will national self-righteousness fail to make our own government any better, it is equally hard to see it having the slightest effect on foreign government policies

These sentiments certainly sound appealing (though one suspects more to the academic Labour faithful than to people in places like Hartlepool, where workers’ livelihoods can actually depend on the dismantling of trade barriers). They are also wrong.

For one thing, the government has already made it clear that in egregious cases trade policy will in fact be influenced by considerations of morality and decency.

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