CTU 'cautiously optimistic' about labour, environment standards in EU trade talks
By Paul McBeth
Nov. 2 (BusinessDesk) - The Council of Trade Unions is pleased to see trade talks with European officials will include discussion of labour and environmental standards, but isn't counting its chickens too early.
Members of the European Parliament's trade committee visited New Zealand and Australia this week as a precursor to formal negotiations in both nations as the regional bloc steps up to take a leading in role in global trade talks since the US administration adopted a more inward-looking focus. Committee chair Bernd Lange floated the prospect of pursuing environmental and labour standards in what he hoped would be a "comprehensive" deal, and Trade Minister David Parker said he was keen to develop a gold-standard agreement.
CTU national secretary Sam Huggard welcomed the move to align environmental and labour standards and replace Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions, however, the peak union body isn't throwing its weight behind the proposed deal yet.
"We're cautiously optimistic about the potential for a new approach to trade and investment by the initial negotiation of the EU-New Zealand arrangement," Huggard told BusinessDesk. "We've been very critical in the past of what we've called international commerce agreements - the days where these were largely about trade in commodities are gone."
The union body has long campaigned against the expanding reach of free trade agreements, raising concerns about giving multinational companies unrestricted access to land, resources, workers, culture, plant life, indigenous intellectual property and so on without providing protections for the people of that country.
European policymakers have been grappling with similar concerns after the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US raised public fears about some of the deep-reaching provisions contained within the deal, which was ultimately rejected. Europe has since changed tack, and Lange says future negotiations will have a level of transparency and openness not seen before.
The CTU's Huggard is "thrilled" about the more open process, but said the union movement still has concerns about whether there would be an impact on policymaking, citing the ability of governments to use procurement to support local industries.
"We're really keen to make sure that a good gold-standard trade agreement is not just around greater openness and greater participation and greater recognition of labour and environment clauses, but also addressing some of those fundamentals ensuring the government can still regulate, procure, provide in the national interest," he said.
An element of that transparency is increasing the social and consumer impact of free trade deals, which have been ignored at the expense of focusing on industry, Huggard said.
New Zealand exported $4.93 billion of merchandise goods to the European Union in the year ended Sept. 30, down 6.4 percent from a year earlier, and imported $9.8 billion of goods, up from $9.33 billion a year earlier.