Brexit turbulence underlines need for Australia to push for fair trade system

January 16, 2019: The massive rejection of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Bill yesterday supercharges the drama over the future of Europe and the future of trade and investment deals world-wide.

Prime Minister May has only until next Monday to present an alternative plan to the British Parliament, a most unlikely prospect. It is possible that the Tory minority government will fall, another election will be called, and the European Commission may allow an extension of the March 29 withdrawal date to allow for an initiative by a new British government, such as a new referendum.

The pro-Brexit Conservatives passionately object to the role of the European Court of Justice, the European Convention on Human Rights and European regulation of goods and services, as well as the freedom of movement of EU citizens, which has been expressed in racist terms. However, what the Brexiteers call “EU red tape” is often the respect for human equality, protection of workers’ rights, human rights and the environment, which have resulted from struggles by unions, environment groups and other social movements. Unions have supported free movement of EU citizens while opposing EU directives allowing European immigrant labour to be paid the lower wages and conditions applying in their home country.

The Australians who champion Brexit are led by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Foreign Minister and High Commissioner to the UK Alexander Downer. Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy appeals to the racist Right in Europe and the UK

On October 3, 2016, Abbott told a business breakfast in London that a no-deal exit from the EU would allow the UK to pursue an “absolutely free” trade deal with Australia. "There should be no need for tortuous negotiation and labyrinthine detail," he said.

However, the UK Brexit debate has clearly demonstrated that Abbott and Downer had grandly over-simplified the situation. The level of uncertainty about many arrangements, such as air traffic, finance sector regulation, and supply of many goods shows that a UK exit from Europe is multi-layered and complicated.

And what is the alternative that Australia’s Brexiteers propose? Clearly they want any future UK - Australia trade and investment deal to give more rights to global corporations and ignore human rights, labour rights and environmental protections. These are the very issues which have caused the global trade processes in the World Trade Organisation and even in regional arrangements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to seize up or lead to sharp disagreements.

The better alternative is for a radical review of regional agreements like the TPP-11 and the European Union, and the multilateral World Trade Organisation. We need to shift their focus from mega-corporate demands for little or no regulation of their supply chains, towards embedding the rights of nations and peoples to define their own development path, and to enhance their democratic rights, human development and environmental sustainability.