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UK signs first major post-Brexit trade deal

Earlier this month, UK Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch signed the “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership”. The CPTPP is a new trade deal with 11 Asian and Pacific countries, covering a trade area of about 500 million people or 15 percent of world GDP.

More countries have applied to join. China is among then. Also Taiwan, Ukraine, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador have applied. Signatories are required to scrap or significantly reduce tariffs, make strong commitments to open up services and investment markets and respect rules around competition, intellectual property rights and protections for foreign companies.

The World Bank has predicted that by 2050, CPTPP will account for almost a quarter of the world economy, and the European Union just for a tenth. Also, experts have pointed out that CPTPP membership effectively makes it even more difficult for any Labour government to lock the UK into a customs union with the EU, which would force the UK to follow the EU’s trade guidance. Also, as trade expert David Henig has pointed out:

“CPTPP will not in any way affect our relationship with the EU. I’m confident in saying that. Because if there was a future political decision to rejoin the EU or the single market, it would just be one of many things that would need sorting”.

That does not mean any UK Labour government could not for example more closely align the UK voluntarily with selected EU regulations. Otherwise the Northern Ireland arrangement, which does precisely that, would have been seen as an obstacle to the UK joining CPTPP.

To be able to join CPTPP, the UK has promised to cut its tariff on importing palm oil from 12 to 0 percent immediately. Green activists have criticised this, despite the WWF pointing out that palm plantations have impressively heavy yields, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Alternatives like coconut or sunflower reportedly require between four and ten times as much land, contributing to environmental degradation elsewhere.

With its new deforestation rules, the EU will be burdening Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil producers considerable extra bureaucracy, despite the fact that according to international research, Malaysia managed to secure great progress in reducing deforestation, as a result of domestic certification schemes like the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Board. This has caused the country’s government to decide to freeze trade talks with the EU, in June 2023. Of particular concern is that the EU no longer wants to recognize this scheme, as opposed to the UK, which recognises the standards of its trading partners.

Recently, German Chancellor Scholz recently urged for rapid completion of trade deals, in response to complaints by African countries in particular that the EU was engaging in “neo-colonialism and regulatory imperialism” by linking greater openness to trade with demands on workers’ rights, food safety, and climate policy. Then, some of Europe’s African trade partners even threatened to look to China instead. Scholz pointed out:

“If we continue to negotiate new free trade agreements for years without success, others will dictate the rules in the future—with lower environmental and social standards.”

Picture: UK Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch (Copyright: UK Government, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons )