In an EU referendum campaign that has rarely been anything other than banal or absurd, the issue of British sovereignty has been the overriding theme. The Brexit campaign is founded on the idea that the European Union is a shady, labyrinthine organisation that would see every free-born Englishman bound by the chains of Brussels bureaucracy. David Cameron reckons this is bullshit, saying the idea of Britain having any more real power outside of the EU is an illusion. We wouldn't have the power to stop British businesses being discriminated against, or to make EU countries share border information with us, for instance. Sometimes power can be a bit more complicated than making your own laws in a world where there are other countries also making laws that might affect you.
But how much does Cameron actually care about sovereignty? Leaked documents shown to VICE by Global Justice Now suggest not as much as he'd like you to think.
On the 13th of May, the EU Foreign Affairs / Trade-Council met in Brussels to discuss, among other things, the implementation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). CETA is the cousin of the more famous TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), a free trade deal between the US and the EU. CETA is a deal with Canada that many critics believe is a corporate power grab designed to strip away the regulations that protect us from badly made or dangerous products.
A set of notes made during the 13th of May meeting shows the UK aggressively pushing for CETA to be implemented before the UK parliament would have a chance to vote on the issue. Britain was one of only seven countries pushing for the "fastest possible implementation" of the deal, which would mean that the British parliament would only have a say on it after the deal was done. The others pushing for this were Finland, Spain, Estonia, Sweden, Portugal, Lithuania and Cyprus. France, Germany, Italy and everyone else are saying that this deal needs to go through national parliaments before it is implemented.
The leaked notes also show that Britain is happy to leave itself open to being sued by corporations. That's because Britain has withdrawn its reservations to the "Investment Court system", which would be used to resolve issues between investors and states. This could lead to situations like in Australia, where tobacco giant Philip Morris tried to sue the government over the introduction of plain cigarette packaging.
These enormous, sweeping agreements could affect everything from the NHS and fracking to internet privacy and food safety. TTIP is boosted on both sides of the Atlantic as being a creator of "jobs and growth" by cutting trade tariffs and regulatory barriers in order to give companies in the EU and US easier access to each other's markets.
But with most traditional barriers to trade already knocked down, CETA is trying to do something more ambitious than that. CETA and TTIP are an attempt to establish a trans-Atlantic common market, one in which European and American regulations relating to almost everything would be brought in line with one another. So, for example, a car made for the American market would be able to be sold in Europe without any changes being made to it.
CETA locks in privatisation and deregulation at current levels for a wide range of services. It makes it more difficult for government to prevent financial crises through regulation, opens the way for toxic tar sands oil to be imported into Europe and contains a "Regulatory Cooperation" chapter, which threatens to hand multi-nationals a greater role in the formulation of making laws.
Briefing to have such deals implemented before parliament has even had the chance to look at them represents a spectacular lack of commitment to national sovereignty. Campaigners are accusing the UK of making the EU less democratic.
"Toxic trade deals like CETA are inherently undemocratic," says Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now, which has been campaigning against CETA and TTIP. "But Cameron seems perfectly happy to go beyond what the EU requires – he seems to be interested in handing over sovereignty for the sake of it. Again, Britain plays the role of making the EU less, rather than more, democratic."
However, the same could be said of certain prominent Brexiters. Boris Johnson is a tub-thumping supporter of TTIP. He believes the "Left-wing misery-guts anti-globalisation campaigners" who oppose it – partly on grounds of sovereignty – are spouting "mumbo-jumbo".
There are politicians who are truly concerned by what these deals might mean for Britain. One of them, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, says that he wants to see a "Europe that does not sign away a lot of public services across the whole continent through TTIP – which has been negotiated secretly between the European Union and the USA."
Another, Conservative MP Peter Lilley, a self-described believer in free trade, has tried to have the NHS excluded from TTIP. He points out that the ISDS clause that allows corporations to sue governments gave rise to tribunals that were "originally invented to encourage investment by American and other companies in developing countries that had poor systems of government" – countries that were also prayed upon by American companies.
In the run-up to re-negotiating Britain's role in Europe earlier this year, David Cameron responded to a question from Boris Johnson that he would "put beyond doubt that this House of Commons is sovereign". Looks like he didn't really mean it.
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