The UK is on the verge of sending a terrible signal to its WTO partners just at the time that they are beginning to unite behind a more common approach to the regulation of animal and plant products. Conservative MP, Simon Hoare has added an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that says that the UK will not accept agricultural products from other countries that are “below the UK’s standards”. It is worth setting out in full what it says:
- Agricultural goods may be imported into the UK only if the standards to which those goods were produced were as high as, or higher than, standards which at the time of import applied under UK law relating to :-
- Animal welfare
- Protection of the environment
- Food Safety
The Amendment violates WTO law
This blanket provision violates the WTO’s SPS agreement which says that any SPS laws must be based on sound science, and must not be a disguised barrier to trade. Article 2 of the SPS Agreement allows countries to enact laws in the SPS area to protect human, animal, or plant health, provided these are necessary and consistent with sound science.
On leaving the EU, the UK will have to change its SPS regime in any event in order to maintain legality. This is because the EU’s SPS regime is in present violation of WTO rules on beef hormones, genetically modified organisms, and potentially poultry if the US brings back the case it originally filed in the late 2000s. It is also because it is permissible to enact SPS rules to protect your own production (plant or animal health), but such rules are not allowed if you don’t have any domestic production to protect. This would apply to things that the UK does not produce (such as oranges or olive oil). The SPS agreement also provides that members must base their domestic rules on international standards. It is not permissible for members to base their standards on the most restrictive standards that exist in the world, if those are different from international standards. In other words, if the amendment referred to international standards, it would be more likely to pass muster under WTO rules.
Impact of the Amendment on the UK’s trade leadership
The WTO has long favoured so-called technology neutral regulation that does not discriminate between countries on the basis of how goods are produced, but only relates to the end results in the area of environmental, and health objectives. The introduction of a new (to the WTO) concept of minimum animal welfare standards begs a number of questions.
First, this provision is a trade barrier against the import of products from anywhere outside the UK subject to the most broad and non-science based categorisation. What does a “higher standard” mean? Who determines what that is and how will countries who object to its use make known their objection? The clause will rightly be regarded as a protectionist’s charter which could be used by UK producers to simply block access to the UK’s market for any competitor.
The Rest of the World is adapting: Is the UK going to be an outlier?
The rest of the world is uniting behind a vision of SPS regulation that accords to WTO norms. Most recently, a number of countries have come together to try to ensure compliance with WTO SPS rules through a WTO Ministerial Declaration, on a new SPS programme of work, which identifies common challenges in implementing the SPS Agreement.
Initiated by the US, Canada and Brazil, growing support is coming from the likes of New Zealand, Australia, even India, and most of Latin America. These countries want to see a revival of Codex Alimentarius, IPPV and OIE to be the repositories of sound science so countries can base their SPS rules on what the science is saying, not on “mumbo jumbo” as the PM eloquently explained at his Greenwich speech.
This work programme is a direct attack on the EU’s increasingly non-science based approach. Since most countries, including all those that we would want to do free trade deals with, are on one side of this particular table, they are reasonably asking on which side of the table will the UK be? Will our first signal to the rest of the world be to embrace an illegal measure that is at least as bad as the EU’s violative SPS rules – and because of its breadth, arguably worse?
To do this makes a mockery of all the pretty speeches of the PM and the Secretary of State for International Trade about the importance of free trade. The rest of the world will rightly see the UK not as the country that can catalyse the much needed rebirth of liberalisation, but rather as another mini-EU – a net negative on the global trade stage to be fought and managed, not to be embraced.
Take the objections to so-called chlorinated chicken for example. First, the US and other countries that use so-called Pathogen Reduction Treatments or PRTs rarely use chlorine-based washes now. They use peracetic acid, which is more like vinegar and approved by the European Food Safety Agency many years ago, but still banned in the EU.
Second, these countries can rightly argue that their food hygiene and safety standards are actually much higher than the EU’s. The incidence of campylobacter in chicken is much, much higher in the EU than it is in the US (by way of example).
Indeed, the US does not allow food products that have not been treated with PRTs into its market as Canadian beef farmers discovered when they tried to use the CETA increased beef quota into the EU, while continuing to sell to the US. If indeed the issue is not a food hygiene issue at all, but an animal welfare issue then having an animal welfare dialogue, and developing some real science in this area would be a good thing for the UK to lead. But it must not deliberately confuse these issues in order to deliver an import ban.
Despite their union’s support for the amendment, this is not good for UK farmers either. This will be interpreted as a way of not allowing the uptake of critical new technologies such as gene editing and synthetic biology, which UK farmers actually want to be able to use.
This amendment would consign UK farmers to the “museum of world agriculture”. It would lock them into EU supply chains where they would be competing with highly subsidised European farmers and would gradually lose market share.
Impact of the Amendment on International Development
This amendment is also a hammer-blow to development. The UK maintains a very significant aid budget for developing countries. But the major export of developing countries is agriculture and they won’t long survive if their products are banned by both the EU and the UK. We might as well push the people of developing countries into poverty. For too long their products have been subject to EU bans. The UK leaving the EU is an opportunity to help these countries and to align our development spending and our trade policy. If the first thing we do is give them an illegal slap in the face, that will be on our collective conscience.
Any MP who backs this bill is turning their back on the clarion calls from the UK cabinet and its Prime Minister to lead the world into the sunlit uplands of free trade and free markets, and makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s Greenwich speech.
It is perhaps unsurprising that opposition MPs might seek to do that. The world is watching and is anxious to know how the UK will use its newfound independence. For Conservative MPs to make common cause with opposition MPs on this issue would deal a devastating blow to the UK’s global credentials, its trade policy agenda, and the potential for domestic regulatory reform.
This amendment is a poison pill that will simultaneously kill off the UK’s global trade leadership, its potential domestic success, and the poor of the developing world.
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