Yesterday, on a trip to China, the UK’s trade minister, Liam Fox, was asked about the possibility of Britain joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He said that “it would be foolish for us to rule out any particular outcomes for the future”.
But this latest episode of 'fantasy trade deals' shouldn't obscure the fact that ruling out trade deals is precisely what Liam Fox and his Cabinet colleagues have done by saying that Britain will not remain a member of the single market and customs union after leaving the European Union.
They were wrong to rule that out, but it’s hard to see what benefits there would be for Britain in joining the TPP.
Unions in the 11 countries currently still involved TPP (after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the negotiations) are steadfastly opposed to the deal because it would provide little in the way of protections for workers' rights. While workers in Vietnam might benefit because their rights are already so limited that even the safety net of ILO core labour standards would be an improvement, none of the 11 countries involved have better rights at work than the UK does currently.
And because it includes the contentious Investor-State Dispute Settlement protections for foreign investors, it would threaten public services and the environment too.
TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, said such a move would be "scraping the bottom of the Brexit barrel." She points out that "trade unions around the world have opposed this deal because it allows labour abuses, it puts public services at risk and it gives too much control to corporations."
"Ministers should stay focused on keeping frictionless trade with our major trading partners in Europe and protecting our rights at work. The best way to achieve this is a Brexit deal that keeps us in the single market and customs union after we leave the EU."
As the Financial Times reported (£), the UK’s trade in goods with the 11 countries of the TPP is currently less than our trade with Germany alone, and dwarfed by our trade with the rest of the EU as a whole. That’s what’s keeping many UK manufacturing jobs going (as well as many in services).
So it would make more sense to protect that trading relationship first, rather than walking out of the single market and customs union in the hopes that we can replace the trade we lose with a hypothetical trade deal with countries like Japan and Korea.
Indeed, membership of the single market and customs union means we’re already part of a trade deal between the EU and those countries, and others like Australia and New Zealand have made it clear that they will do a deal with the rest of the EU first, before possibly concluding a trade deal with post-Brexit Britain.
So walking out of the single market and customs union, as Liam Fox and his Conservative colleagues have pledged to do is actually ruling out an existing relationship with the big players in the TPP, whatever Fox’s fantasies about relocating the UK to the Pacific.
For the good of working people’s rights, jobs and livelihoods, the government should put membership of the single market and customs union back on the Brexit negotiating table, and genuinely rule nothing out.