May 13, 2019 1.33 pm This story is over 54 months old

Barry Turner: Chasing the free trade dream

Beware of free trade. Nothing about it is free.

As we enter the feverish run up to the EU Parliament elections on the May 23, we will see Brexiteer after Brexiteer campaigning on the platform of prosperity based on free trade. It is the most remarkably unchallenged political and economic myth of the modern world.

On the face of it, free trade looks like the epitome of fairness and the basis of peace, love and understanding between nations. A world where everyone happily barters their goods as if at some global version of a stone-age gathering of the clans. Free trade seems to offer the answer to all ills and the freer the better. It is a total illusion, of course, a bit like enlightenment, something we keep working for but never seem to achieve.

Oddly in the light of free trade being the flagship of capitalism, it bears some striking resemblance to that it seeks to displace. Free trade seeks to build a bonfire of the regulations and to break down barriers to entrepreneurship. The remarkable irony is that it cannot do this without — wait for it — regulations.

Those who have long advocated the UK’s departure from the EU and its ‘stifling’ rules and regulations, enthusiastically declare that once outside the EU Britain will be able to trade freely on WTO rules. This has become a mantra that is equally remarkably infrequently challenged by journalists. We are led to believe that unlike the EU and its ‘draconian’ regulations, the WTO is the enlightenment of the world of commerce.

WTO rules might suggest something else. The magic word is rules. Free trade governed by rules, surely not?! The WTO is a rules-based system, a bit like the EU really. It is however a system that can easily be flouted. A system so riddled with failings as to be in some areas useless. But that of course suits the free traders who want no rules at all anyway.

So what does free trade really mean? It means unbridled laissez faire capitalism. It means the rich and the powerful get to exploit those less rich and powerful. It means winner takes all and the devil takes the hindmost. It is no more free for the majority than our current system of regulation — and it’s a lot less fair.

Free trade is not fair trade.

The WTO is dysfunctional. Its current set of rules underpinned by a sort of legal system has no effective appellate court. Those breaking its rules will soon be able to do so with impunity. Even more astonishingly, 10 of the worlds richest countries enjoy special trading status as ‘developing ‘ nations, including the world’s second biggest economy. States armed with nuclear weapons and operating space programmes enjoy the trading status of the world’s poorest.

That is one of the reasons President Trump’s administration is at loggerheads with China. China, a vastly wealthy nation, is given special treatment because it is ‘developing’. That is the very reason Trump keeps threatening to leave the WTO, the very organisation our free traders look to as the answer.

So, back to the enthusiasm shown by the Brexiteers for the WTO and its ‘rules’. Are we to believe that arch Tories, Ukippers and Nigel Farage’s latest manifestation really support an organisation that sanctions giving unfair trading advantages to states that exploit every loophole in the free trade book? Of course they do, because they think that the UK will be joining that bandwagon. The problem with that is, of course, that when everyone cheats there are no rules at all.

When that happens, the very concept of freedom itself is at stake. Beware of free trade. Nothing about it is free.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.