Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.
On Wednesday this week, the House of Commons will consider the remaining stages of the Agriculture bill. It is in many ways an uncontroversial piece of legislation but, as with many such bills, there are traps waiting for the unwary.
In this case, the trap relates to potential amendments on the issue of animal welfare. Most people are proud of this country’s animal welfare measures, which make us one of the most humane in the world and would like to see the rest of the world move in our direction.
On the face of it, the amendments tabled appear innocuous, and seem genuinely intended to help the U.K.’s farming sector. But their unintended consequences are profound, and could cause huge damage to the United Kingdom’s international reputation for observing treaty law; hole Britain’s new independent trade policy below the waterline and, unwind much of the work done by DFID and by NGOs to help eliminate poverty in the world’s developing economies.
The amendments seek to prevent imports under any trade agreement if UK standards on animal welfare are not applied in the country of origin.
The first issue that arises is whether the amendments are compatible with WTO rules, and whether incorporating them into domestic law would undermine Britain’s reputation for support of a rules-based international trading system.
At the moment, food safety and the ability of individual governments to regulate on the issue, is anchored in WTO law under the SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) Agreement. Animal welfare is not covered by WTO law, with the exception of standards relating to slaughter, which are referenced in the SPS agreement.
There are general exceptions to WTO law under Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), but animal welfare is not one of those exceptions. During the Uruguay Round of world trade talks, there was much debate around the issue, and it was finally decided that animal welfare should not be included as an issue, as set out in the so called “Dunkel Text”, named after the then Director General of the GATT.
In other words, trying to force another country to adopt UK animal welfare standards as a condition of a preferential trade agreement would not be legal. It is the sort of “level playing field” issue beloved by the EU, and is exactly the kind of provision we are fighting against in our current negotiation over our future trading relationship
We do not believe that we should have to incorporate EU rules into Britain order to trade with them – and other countries would have exactly the same attitude towards the UK if we were to try to impose our animal welfare rules on them as a condition of market entry. It would be a fine start indeed to Britain’s post-EU independent trade policy if we were to follow the political direction of the organisation from which we have just broken free rather than adopting a much more liberal, pro-free trade posture.
There would be almost immediate implications for the trade negotiations that are currently underway – with United States, Australia, New Zealand and potential membership of CPTPP (the Transpacific Partnership). Take it from me that the US would walk away from talks if we tried to make the adoption of UK rules a precondition of any FTA, and they would be rapidly followed by the others.
There are undoubtedly some in Whitehall who would not be too concerned about such an outcome, but the real winners in such a scenario would be the Brussels bureaucrats, who would be smiling from ear to ear if the UK-US trade negotiations were to break down in acrimony because the UK had insisted on a “level playing field”.
One of the other serious, though I am sure unintended, consequences of passing these amendments would be that it would be impossible for Britain to conclude free trade agreements with developing countries, including those in the Commonwealth.
We have spent a great deal of time and effort in persuading these countries, at the WTO in Geneva, that we will be on their side post-Brexit, and that we will use our newfound freedom to help open up free and fair global trade. We have declared that we will not follow the protectionist behaviour of the EU which gives aid with one hand but erects barriers to trade with the other.
So were these amendments to take effect, not only would we be accused of betrayal by those who have such high hopes for an independent UK trade policy, but we would be likely to bring ourselves politically into conflict with the development NGOs.
The best way to help our agricultural sector is to use our reputation for high standards, including in animal welfare, as a marketing tool for UK farming exports. That requires a properly strategic approach to the sector operated across government departments including Department for International Trade, DEFRA and the Foreign Office. British farming, for too long anaesthetised by the EU’s common agricultural policy, will need sustained help to reach its full potential as a major exporting sector for the UK economy.
These amendments must be defeated and defeated resoundingly if we are to stop them being reintroduced when the bill reaches the House of Lords. The law is not for virtue signalling – and bad law, however well intended, will bring bad consequences that go far beyond the issue of animal welfare itself.