CPTPP roundtable CPTPP roundtable, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Behind the rhetoric of ‘liberalisation’, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is nothing more than vehicle for exploitation and global inequality, writes John Clarke

In an online interview with the Financial Times, last November, Justin Trudeau was at his most smug and annoying when he responded to a question on the prospects for a Canada/UK trade agreement. He pointed out, not entirely inaccurately, that Canada has amassed wide ranging experience in hammering out such deals, while the UK must now find its place in the world in this regard, as decades of EU membership give way to the new post Brexit realities.

Writing at the end of last year, Michael Roberts offered an assessment of the Brexit deal and an emerging strategy to operate globally, given that ‘the British government will have to renegotiate new bilateral treaties with governments across the world, whereas previously they were included within EU deals.’ In the case of the deal with the EU, while ‘the tariff-free regime of the EU’s internal market has been maintained,’ Boris Johnson didn’t pull all of the rabbits out of the hat for the capitalist class by any means.

The deal on fisheries was a bitter pill and ‘frictionless trade is over.’ The UK has an enormous goods trade deficit with the EU but the reverse has been the case when it comes to ‘financial and professional services where the City of London leads.’ With 43% of financial services exports going to the EU, any and all restrictions on trade have very serious implications.

The Tories entertain desperate hopes that ‘UK industry and the City of London can now expand across the world ‘‘free from the shackles’ of EU regulation’ but the impacts of the pandemic triggered economic crisis, along with the deeper problems and relative decline of British capitalism, stand in the way of these plans. UK profitability has fallen by 9% since 2015 and that is predicted to become 18% by 2022.  Still, however saddled with contradictions and limitations, the British capitalist class and its political representatives now find themselves looking for a place within the international trade deals that have been a defining feature of the neoliberal decades.

“Free Trade”

In pursuit of precisely this strategy, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has announced the intention of the Johnson government to apply for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).  The present members of this trading bloc are Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. However, with restoration of ‘US global leadership’ in the form of the Biden administration, there are hopes that the decision of the crudely nationalistic Trump regime to pull out of negotiations to join this group will be reversed. For British capitalists, this might compensate for the galling failure to work out a bilateral deal with the US.

It’s rather interesting that, in reporting on the UK application to be part of the CPTPP, the BBC, as a mouthpiece of the British establishment, names the member countries in two separate lists. The list of the richest and most powerful imperialist countries is put first and the other participants are presented as an afterthought. That’s a horribly appropriate comment on the nature and purpose of ‘free trade deals’ and the intensified global inequality and exploitation that has marked the neoliberal world order. The CPTPP is very much part of the consolidation of that order.

The impeccably conservative Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), points out that the CPTPP is viewed as a ‘next generation’ trade agreement and that ‘of its 30 chapters, several stand out as innovative.’ These ‘innovations’ apply in e-commerce, where the agreement ‘largely prohibits data localization and prohibits customs duties on electronic transmissions.’ The CPTPP also ‘facilitates regionalized supply chains and liberalises trade in services.’ CSIS tells us that ‘several economies wait in the wings to join the bloc.’  It is worth taking a look at how this trade agreement evolved from the earlier Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” deal.

The Council of Canadians is an organisation that has played a leading role in opposing business driven trade deals, going all the way back to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in 1989 and which was replaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), when the deal was extended to include Mexico. The view the Council of Canadians takes of the CPTPP is that it was renamed and reworked in an effort to make it ‘more appealing’ than the TPP but that it remains the same in its destructive essential features. It has been predicted that 58,000 jobs will be lost in Canada and the Trudeau government has failed to conduct ‘an independent economic study of the CPTPP’s effects on the economy.’

The Council of Canadians points out that ‘the CPTPP also prevents food labelling laws, has provisions that accelerate the acceptance of GMOs, and creates processes where industry can change regulations on food safety, pesticides, environmental provisions and more.’ It also reveals that ‘the CPTPP has “negative list” and “ratchet” provisions that encourage the privatization of public services.’ The agreement also has ‘provisions (that) allow companies to bypass domestic courts in order to sue governments over environmental or public policy regulations that get in the way of their corporate profits.’ Supposed standards with regard to workers’ rights and environmental standards come without any enforcement mechanisms whatsoever.

Business driven ‘free trade’ deals like CPTPP are fundamentally about freeing capitalists from any and all restrictions on their ability to profit at the expense of workers, communities and the environment. The forementioned agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico has ensured that ‘working people in all three NAFTA countries have suffered from the deal. Canadian workers have suffered significant losses to their social safety net, as unemployment benefits were cut…850,000 jobs have been lost directly due to NAFTA (in the US).’ ‘During the first 20 years of NAFTA, about five million Mexican family farmers were displaced’ while ‘a Mexican worker who earns the minimum wage could buy 38 percent fewer consumer goods in 2014 compared to when NAFTA took effect.’

Freedom for Capitalists

The use of concepts like ‘liberalisation’ and ‘freedom’ to describe the trade deals of the neoliberal period are cruelly ironic. As ‘free trade’ is implemented, working people are ever more subjected to racist border restrictions and enforcement mechanisms, while migrant workers are increasingly brought under the control of refined systems of intensified exploitation. As capital moves freely, immigration detention facilities become hellish and despairing places of ‘modern slavery.’ In Canada, the number of temporary migrant workers, allowed to work but without the right to stay in the country beyond an agreed upon period, has tripled in the space of a decade. Those who were once euphemistically referred to as ‘guest workers,’ now outnumber those who come to Canada as permanent residents. Horrendous abuses are inflicted on this migrant workforce that enjoys few rights and none of the very modest protections available to other workers.

The efforts of the Johnson Tories to develop a post Brexit strategy, in which the pursuit of trade deals like CPTPP are a major feature, are all about enhancing the role of global exploiter and seeking to further impose a burden of a crisis they didn’t create on workers and communities in the UK. Such agreements among the global capitalists are about their ‘right’ of to exploit, pollute and profit regardless of the impact of their destructive greed. Our internationalism is about uniting working class people against the borders they set up to restrict our movement and the ‘free trade’ deals they draw up as weapons of exploitation.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.